Da Mystery of Multiboxing – A brief tale of Automated Heroics Inc.

I have long been a fan of playing Massively Multiplayer Online games, but I really don’t like MMO gamers because they tend to be jackasses. At the time my MMO of choice was City of Heroes, which was popular with teenagers. Needless to say, the jackass factor was high. The game is best played with others tho, so I was often stuck playing with jackasses. You do what you gotta do to unlock those badges.

My gaming experience was sub optimal. So, I did what any hacker does when he is confronted with a problem: I started hacking. I found that I could multiplex keyboard commands through some networked software and came up with a workable multibox solution. The trick was it needed multiple computers. So I cobbled together some old desktops to make barely-passable gaming machines. At one point I had 8 of them running. It took a half hour to get all my bots logged into the game and another half hour to enter an instance, but being able to play on superhero teams where everyone did what I told them to do was sheer joy. My group was all robot-themed and my supergroup was called “Automated Heroics Inc.” and all of the player-character bios read like product descriptions in a catalog. I also had macros programmed so that all of them could do “The Robot” in sync. It was hilarious. Why didn’t I get any video of that?

Multiboxing can be tricky because each MMO is different about how it handles its controls, sessions, authentication, you name it. In the case of CoH, running multiple instances of the game on the same computer didn’t work well. It was fine if I alt-tabbed between the sessions and controlled the toons manually, but having sessions in windowed mode made them crash. The software that I used, Auto Hotkey, worked well when testing scripts with notepad windows, but when it came time to run them with CoH, it was shit show.

So I decided to keep AHK, but I used some junk PCs and old video cards to run the game. AHK has some networking features that let you push groups of keystrokes out to clients, so that if I pressed ‘0’ on my main PC, it would send a series of key presses and pauses to the other 7 machines. Because I am writing this several years after I did the project, I no longer have any of the files I used. Also CoH has been shut down for years, so example code wouldn’t be all that useful even if I had it. Here are a few things to consider though:

  1. Hopefully your game has a free-to-play or freemium option so that you can set up multiple accounts for not much money. Running just one bot toon is way different from a tactical standpoint than running seven of them.
  2. Hopefully your game has an auto-follow function, where you target a player and your toon moves whenever and where ever the target goes. This is so important for moving all of your bots in an orderly fashion.
  3. Hopefully your game has an assist or auto-target function, where you target a player and your toon targets that player’s target. Much like the auto-follow feature, assist keeps everyone shooting at the same thing. I found that concentrating fire on the big critters first was the most effective way to initiate combat. If you time it right, you put them down fast and then mop up the minions.
  4. If you have both auto-follow and assist, then you can round up your bot crew by mapping a key to tell each bot to target you, follow you, and assist you. Being able to get your toons to focus on you is an essential function because targeting can cause your bots to do dumb things like take off running or shoot at the wrong thing. On my “main” pc, I mapped this script to the same key that I used to target the enemy closest to me.
  5. Multiboxed toons work best with ranged combat, especially area of effect attacks. You will want your crew to be mostly squishy DPS types and dudes that can heal and buff squishy DPS types. My bot crew was entirely ranged. I called them “The Firing Squad.”
  6. An AOE that is centered on the player (A Player Based Area Of Effect, PBAOE, in CoH parlance) is great for mopping up a mob once it has closed distance with your crew.
  7. Another great use is AOE heals. Even if they’re weak, you can have two or more toons dropping their heals as part of their attack sequence. Often, your toons will either have a PBAOE attack, or a PBAOE heal. If you are dropping PBAOEs when the enemy moves into melee range, you will likely need AOE heals too, so just have everyone drop them at once.
  8. I mostly used my bots to level my support toons that were hard to solo, like controllers and tanks. It’s decent practice for keeping a team alive, but it’s not the same skill at playing with real humans.
  9. Multiboxing isn’t about playing an indiviual bot toon well. It’s about using the entire group of bot toons to support your main toon[s]. There are some key differences between playing a main toon vs. playing a bot toon:
    • Your bots will probably never be alone, so there’s no need to balance offense with defense. A “real” toon needs to be well rounded, bot toons are highly specialized insects.
    • Your bots should have two basic specialties: shooting or healing. They should be going pew pew pew or heal heal heal pretty much all the time.
    • Putting up shields and other buffs can be a pain to script but it’s worth it: Targeting a team member, drop one or more buffs on them, target the next team member, etc.
    • There will be multiple buffers dropping different buffs, so don’t focus so much on making each buff powerful, focus on making each buff mana/energy efficient with short cool down periods so you can lay them down fast and often. Once the buff process is scripted, running it between each mob isn’t a big deal.

In CoH, there were two character classes, the Corruptor and the Defender that both combined blasting stuff with healing and buffs. The Corruptor’s primary power set was offense and the secondary power set was support, while the Defender was the exact opposite. A third class, the Blaster, was exclusively focused on offense. I had two Blasters, four Corruptors and one Defender. The corruptors could buff everyone up before a fight, then my main toon would pull a mob, the bots would open fire, and if the mob got close, I had the Blasters drop their PBAOE blasts and then the Defender and the Corruptors dropped heals. The benefit of their damage abilities was obvious, but the shields and heals were equally important for helping to level my tank and controller. At higher levels, the bots all had a sniper-type attack that was long range, accurate, and did lots of damage with a long cool down timer. I could generally have everyone target a mob’s boss/lieutenant and drop him in order to pull the rest of the mob. I would then use my tank or controller to tie up the mob while the firing squad picked off minions one at a time. If anything survived that and actually made it to melee range, I would drop the PBAOE blasts, AKA “The Nukes”, along with the heals. The stragglers then got picked off by the firing squad and we rebuffed and took on another mob.

The things you learn about keyboards
Getting your bot toons to do things involved creating macros for each toon to execute certain actions, noting the times that certain animations took, and then mapping those macros to shortcut keys and using AHK to script the key presses for those shortcuts. You have to learn a lot about your game’s behavior, but you also have to learn about keyboards.

Keyboard behavior plays a major part in getting your scripts right. I had the hardest time getting my bots to do simple things like run because I didn’t understand that pushing a key down, and letting go of it are two different events. It was so hard to get those bastards to run, that I ended up relying on the auto-follow feature for basically all movement.

It’s hard to imagine all of the realtime events that go into pressing keys on a keyboard until you have to simulate key presses with software. One thing I wanted to do make the bots do was spread out so that they didn’t all get hit with enemy AOEs. I never did get it right, so I just kept everyone close together and used lots of heals.

I miss all my robot minions. I hope that some day a similar MMO will emerge that will let me rebuild Automated Heroics Inc. so I can record some goddamn video of my dancing robots.

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The Great Big Thing(tm): TV Edition

When I am not playing Skyrim to stave off my existential dread, I watch TV. Needless to say, I have been watching a lot of TV. I used to consider myself more of a cinema nerd, but films just aren’t that good anymore. When I compare some of my favorite films from a long time ago, to the franchise drek that is film today, it lacks quality. Sure, there are good films here and there, like The Dark Knight and Rogue One, but there are a lot of CGI messes too, and some TV shows seem to deliver more consistent quality.

Film sucks for the most part, and I can’t binge watch Adam Curtis documentaries all the time or I will lose my goddamn mind, so I watch TV. Of course I also do family stuff, but with an infant who doesn’t sleep at night, that involves a fair amount of staying up all night holding a sleeping baby, so TV is a big part of my nightly routine.

I have been watching a few new shows and re-watching some old faves, so I’m just going to list them in no particular order and say random things about them.

Stranger Things

I watched Stranger Things for the first time a couple of weeks after it dropped on NetFlix. Since then, I’ve probably rewatched it at least 3 times. It’s a great show, full of nods to 80’s movies like E.T. and Stand By Me, but it also captures something essential about my childhood, which was playing Dungeons and Dragons in my friend’s basement for hours at a time and being bullied.

There are lots of neat things to spot in the show (like the fact that Hop’s daughter, Eleven, and Will all have the same stuffed tiger) and I am unreasonably pumped for season 2, which should be out in a few weeks. I have my own theories about what will happen, but I don’t really want to spoil anything if by some odd chance this is the thing that inspires someone to watch the show, and by an even odder chance I turn out to be right. I will say that the kids’ D&D game at the beginning of the game sort of outlines the plot of the season, and their game at the end probably outlines what will happen in the second series, or at least underlines what is still unresolved at the end of the first series.

Rick and Morty (obvs.)

The new season of Rick and Morty is awesome. It’s another show full of details and fan theories to obsess over. My existential angst is both alleviated and agitated by the show. The show’s conflicting ideas of finding meaning in uncaring universe either helps or makes things worse; I can’t tell which.

The essential point of Rick and Morty is that people with beliefs will have those beliefs tested at every turn. The show actively punishes characters for having any kind of belief, including the devil. The only person that seems to escape this punishment is Rick, and yet Rick is borderline suicidal. Rick has all the answers, and his answer is not to think about it. As power fantasies go, Rick is either the greatest expression because he is essentially all-powerful, or the worst expression because all of his power never seems to get him anywhere. Again, I can’t tell which.

True Detective (season 1)

Speaking of the dichotomy of belief and disbelief, the first season of True Detective is one of the best television shows I have ever seen. Rust (Matthew McConaughey) is incredibly intelligent and yet completely unable to interact with people, except for when he is interrogating them and luring them into making confessions. There are a number of similarities to Rick and Morty, mostly having to do with the juxtaposition of human meaning and savage cruelty, but also the juxtaposition of truth and deception, duty and corruption. There is just barely enough evidence in the show to convince you that Rust is either psychic or psychotic, and somehow not enough to convince you which one.

Rust is working to find truth, and in so doing alienating everyone and choosing to live in madness and misery. Marty on the other hand does the opposite and ends up alienating everyone anyway. The only way that they can uphold the law is to break the law. It’s existential absurdity at its finest.

Season 2 is a good show, it’s just not the masterpiece that is season 1. It’s still worth watching, I just haven’t watched it a dozen times like I have season 1. If you are going to commit to both seasons, you should probably watch season 2 first. Season 2 unfortunately lacks both the Southern Gothic aesthetic of season 1, and the Lovecraftian symbolism. Season 2 takes place in L.A. and without those motifs, it’s just weird L.A. people doing weird L.A. shit. Kind of like a darker version of Bosch.

BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman is another “grown up cartoon” that specializes in reflecting my own nihilism back at me. While Rick and Morty is an endorsement for not engaging in reality, Bojack Horseman is an endorsement for [shying away from] your responsibility for your own reality. Like Rick Sanchez, Bojack understands that everything is shitty and pointless. Unlike Rick, Bojack learns that he is responsible for his own happiness. Of course, Bojack does a comically bad job of handling that responsibility, but he is aware that the responsibility exists.

Watching Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty as a matched set offers two interesting takes on the “whatever you do you will end up feeling empty inside” nature of Western Civilization. I think both shows have an interesting viewpoint: that you can either take responsibility for yourself and your place in the world around you, or you can deny it. No matter which choice you make, you can still fuck it up completely.

The Great Big Thing(tm): SPAAAAACE Edition

In an effort to stave off existential anxiety I have been staying up all night watching YouTube videos about space. This guy Isaac Arthur has a large number of really interesting videos that cover some really interesting topics about the science of science fiction. I have been listening to him talk for weeks about gravity wells, and Dyson spheres and thinking about offworld societies. All of this stuff is super interesting, and then I existential bedrock again when I started watching his videos about the Fermi Paradox and the Simulation Hypothesis.

Basically, the Fermi Paradox is this idea that there are so many planets, stars, and galaxies in the universe that sheer probability says there are other planets capable of supporting life. So why are there no aliens?

Once I started thinking about the Fermi Paradox, it didn’t take long to start applying the logic to all sorts of things. At first I started thinking about this for other fantasy technologies, like time travel. No one has come from the future to stop catastrophes, so perhaps time travel just isn’t possible, or perhaps human life on earth is extinguished before time travel can be developed.

Then I hit upon the Simulation Hypothesis. Which is that our reality could just be an elaborate simulation. It was at this point that I remembered a New Yorker article about how election night and the Oscars might indicate some sort of breakdown of a simulation. At first I laughed it off, but for at least a couple of years things have been going badly all over (shootings, riots, natural disasters, you name it) and there hasn’t been much, if any hedonic adaptation as a result. Maybe we are living in a simulation, maybe we aren’t, but something certainly seems to have happened to the hedonic treadmill. Or maybe the chronic and constant bullshit that is living for 15+ years in post-9/11 America has taken a toll on everyone’s collective psyche.

Or maybe 9/11 was when the simulation started?

The Great Big Thing(tm): Nazi Bullshit Edition

I have been unable to write for a while now, and so I figured I would just write about not being able to write. That ended up being this long rambling screed about my frustration with my friends and family over their obtusely two-dimensional socio-political views. It came across really angsty and disjointed. Then all this Nazi bullshit happened and I just kind of retreated again.

Getting into the Nazi thing is kind of a waste of my time. I’ve dealt with Nazis in one form or another for most of my early adult life. I had a few clashes with Nazi skins when I was a teenage punk, and when I went into the military I clashed with a few more in the US and in Germany. Beefing with German skins was weird. What I didn’t realize, was how prevalent these hard right-wing white power types were in the Ohio National Guard. I had a squad mate that was an ex-skin and he and a few like him were treating their Guard service as free training for their race war. They were conservative gun nuts prepping for a “Shit Hitting The Fan” scenario. This was in the late 90’s. I know these dudes didn’t go anywhere, they just got pushed into silence by polite society, and the specter of a global Islamic Jihad deflected the world’s attention from them. I figured that at some point those dudes would get their lives together, but not only did they not, I guess they all had kids?

I spent a lot of time with these dudes; I got to know them. One guy hated blacks because he was divorced and his wife was dating black dudes. Another was raised to be that way by his father who was a blue collar guy who got laid off in some recession and he blamed immigrants. All of it just sounded like fear and weakness to me. These guys hate people of color because people of color have the power to make them feel inferior. Good job Master Race! You’re doing a great job! It’s no different than those “nice guys” that hate women because women have the power to make them feel lonely and pathetic. It’s ironic when you think about it, white supremacy threatens the lives of so many, yet all it does is protect the egos of a few. Also, these dudes go on and on about liberty, but they are the worst sort of authoritarian apologists.

Maybe I am lucky to have more than one identity, or I’m just lucky that my identity isn’t threatened by women or minorities. Being a geek is a pretty white identity, but it’s not like John Boyega, Gal Gadot, or Rochelle are going to take that away from me. Glenn from The Walking Dead can kill all the zombies and bed all the white women he wants, it doesn’t affect me in any way. The same goes for female Ghostbusters, Daisy Ridley or Imperator Furiosa.

One thing that this new Nazi bullshit did was cause more debate about the First Amendment. The Intercept was nice enough to illustrate my point about how controlling hate speech ends up suppressing progressives, which confirms my bias on these things and helps me feel a little vindicated.

The other thing about Nazi bullshit that pisses me off is that it takes so much Nazi related self-aware/ironic humor off the table. You can’t deliberately invoke Godwin’s Law anymore. You can’t dismiss Xbros as “Filthy Console Peasants”. I have to work so much harder to be simultaneously pretentious and fake-edgy. It’s BULLSHIT.

What disturbs me the most about all this Nazi bullshit isn’t the presence of White Power. You can’t police thought, so you can’t eliminate hate. It’s the lack of conscience on display from leaders of all kinds. Of course the President had nothing to say, those Fashy creeps put him into office, but what about basically everyone else? A bunch of corporations took a stand, and that is probably the worst possible result. They’re Nazis For Fuck’s Sake. They are literally the worst human beings there are. The USA fought a war against them. They’re the definition of an easy target. There will never be any collateral damage when you take a swing at them. They are literally Hitler, literally. When the organizations whose General Counsel advises them against any course of action, any course of action that a corporation ends up taking is the absolute least that could be done. Where in the fuck is everyone else?

My lamentations about corporate power also seem to have been vindicated a little, again thanks to The Intercept. I get that we as a country have lost faith in the political process, but corporate oligarchy is not the answer. Let’s not forget that no one served any time for crashing the economy in 2008. Let’s not forget that everyone looked the other way in the interest of keeping “the system” stable. What else are we going to look the other way on? Using a private army to violate the civil liberties of a group of indigenous people? Those people aren’t white, BTW. Just thought somebody should know that.

UPDATE: This:

There is a Great Big Thing that I can’t write about.

I write because it helps me cope. I haven’t been able to write lately because my mind is unfocused by a bunch of things. What I am seeing around me is a kind of existential apocalypse. Part of it is the world around me, part of it is the realization that I live in a part of the world where I just don’t belong.

Writing is a way to let some of that negative energy out in a (mostly) harmless way. I have suffered some physical injuries in the past year, so my martial arts training weight lifting has been sidelined for quite a while, leaving me with video games, stress eating, and writing as my outlets. Lately writing has been hard, so I pretty much just play Skyrim and Stardew Valley.

The Great Big Thing is a kind of toxic complexity that has led to an existential threat at a global scale. I sense that our American capitalist system is slowly collapsing and the problem is so complex that not only can nobody see it, nobody can even face it. This reflexive/involuntary ignorance has left me with a kind of low grade rage at my friends and family, and a kind of generalized panic.

I have liberal friends who don’t understand nationalism or how white supremacists operate. I have conservative friends that don’t understand the shock doctrine or military doctorine. Neither faction seems to know the difference between fiscal policy and monetary policy, or what tax rates and margins are. I can’t help but feel like everyone is obtusely seeing this oversimplified version of the world. The only friend I have that doesn’t want to just bitch about the presidential election (from a year ago) is a batshit crazy UFO conspiracy theorist. What does that say about me?

The Make Believe World

Nationalism is a logical consequence to globalization. It is the result of the failure of politics to control corporate power, or possibly the corruption of politics via money by corporate interests. It’s what happens when people lose faith in institutions and turn to corporations. Sure there is a racist/anti-immigration component to nationalism, but there is an equal, or possibly greater component that is economic. What you end up with is a population that is mad at the globe, wants to retreat inward. This results in a kind of “foxhole mentality” where you feel that you and your way of life is under attack and anyone outside of your world-view is the enemy. I mean, your way of life is under attack. It’s just being attacked by unchecked corporate greed, not by poor people and brown-skinned immigrants.

Speaking of race and nationalism, modern white supremacists *want* to be judged and attacked for their beliefs, *especially* by other whites, because it plays into their whole “white genocide” narrative. The audience for these theatrics isn’t minorities, it’s disenfranchised/underachieving white dudes. It’s the exact same tactic employed by ISIS and the Westboro Baptist Church. ISIS wants the west to crack down on moderate Muslims because it empowers their “the west wants to destroy all of Islam” rhetoric that helps them recruit martyrs. Westboro is a family of lawyers posing as radicals. The Phelps family wants people to assault them at their protests so that they can file lawsuits and collect settlements. Martyrdom is the endgame, and if you engage them, they win. They’re gonna get mileage off it and there’s noting you can do about it. So you have to get even more.

What’s worse is that my liberal friends are calling for bans on this kind of speech. Hate speech in all forms is bullshit, but that’s not the point. The point is that hate speech is a kind of canary in the coal mine. It’s the way that you prove to the world that you are willing to stand up for all other (i.e. the important) forms of free speech. If you call for a ban on hate speech, how do you plan on enforcing it? The federal government?

How will you keep that ban from silencing the people who need to speak the most? Bans by government at any level *WILL* be used against activists and protesters. Any move a government body makes against the Alt-Right *WILL* harm Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Occupy, and every other group that liberals think are cool. I have been called a “free speech apologist” by a liberal friend for pointing this out. It reminds me of Daffy Duck sticking a shotgun into a hole and having the barrel poke him in the ass. Sure, it’s counter intuitive, but that’s how it always works: the government always punishes vulnerable people, especially when it tries to protect them.

On the Conservative side, my friends don’t seem to understand the pernicious nature of authoritarianism. The shock doctrine is where authoritarian governments and leaders use crises to justify the maneuvers they make to restrict the rights of the people they govern. The neocons did this during the Bush administration after 9/11. That’s not a conspiracy, the PATRIOT act was a direct result. The intelligence apparat did the same thing during the Obama administration in response to various insurgencies in the Middle East following the Arab Spring. Some tragedy happens and new laws suddenly appear to take away even more freedoms.

Most liberals were quick to criticize George W. Bush for letting the intelligence community build its mass surveillance apparatus, but they were curiously silent about Obama letting the same intel community expand it and then equip it with murder drones. It’s not about the politics, it’s about the intel community and the multi-billion dollar industry that supports it forming a kind of ‘deep state’ (I hate using that term) that’s immune to the political process. The country swings from red to blue and back to red, but the Intel Community Apparatchiks gain more power with each cycle. Oh, and the American people are silently complicit. As Trump clashes with the Intel Apparat, liberals support the Apparat, as if they have forgotten about all the kidnapping and torture that they did in the past. At this point, throwing shade at any president means that 50% of the time, I’m the bad guy every time.

Speaking of governmental overreach, my conservative friends are just as delusional as my liberal friends. A few of them seem to think that this is still 1776 and that they can fight *whomever* on equal footing. This is a willful disregard of modern military doctrine. A force multiplier is a technology or tactic that improves the combat effectiveness of a weapon, a soldier, or military unit. Satellite communications, land navigation, advanced optics, and close air support are examples of force multipliers. It’s the tactical support that makes special operations so special, not beards and MOLLE gear. Don’t get me wrong, those operators are total badasses, but behind each badass on the ground there are hundreds of people, millions of dollars in communications equipment, and thousands of man hours of intelligence gathering. You may be dead eye dick with an AR-15, but you won’t even scratch the paint on a Specter or a Warthog. Nuff said.

Because of this worship/obsession with special operations, a kind of cargo cult has formed around guns and gun culture as a result; a certain group of people think that carrying military-style equipment and weapons makes them one of these heroic badass operators fending off a mythical Golden Horde. AR-15’s, beards and vests don’t make you a badass, years of training and access to orbital technology does.

I have written elsewhere about geardos: non-military people, usually right wingers of some kind, who are obessed with military equipment. I can admit to making use of the modularity of MOLLE gear for carrying electronic equipment, so maybe I am more sensitive to this phenomenon than others. Also, I was in the Army in the 90’s and MOLLE gear is way more useful than the shitty Vietnam-era ALICE gear that I had to use. There are three basic types of geardos: 1) the 2nd amendment gun nut types, 2) doomsday preppers/survivalists, and 3) people who fantasize about the zombie apocalypse. There is a weird connection between all 3 types; in one form or another they all share this kind of male power fantasy about the proverbial shit hitting the fan. The point here is that once you remove the racist/sexist/right-wing fantasy, what remains is still fantasy.

So when some NRA gun-nut talks about using his god-given right to assault rifles to “Don’t Tread On Me” against tyranny, don’t believe it for a second. The 2nd Amendment is real, and written into the constitution, so it’s not going anywhere. That doesn’t make it a hedge against tyranny. At all. If the culture wars blossom into a full blown civil war, the military will be the deciding factor, not the geardos. Whichever side the military backs will be the winning side in *very* short order. You could put the entire state of Kentucky, the National Guard included, up against the First Infantry Division, and the smart money would be on the Big Red One. The NRA knows this, which is why their thinly veiled threats are directed specifically at journalists and not at the left in general. Campaign contributions are cool and all, but they’re nothing compared to private military company money.

My side, your side, their side, we don’t know.

What I see around me is that the machinery of the western world is running amok. It’s a vast and complicated system that no one is in control of. I see a militarist/imperialist/plutocratic caste that is doing steadily crazier and crazier shit to keep the system stable, but nothing else. Meanwhile, everyone I know is arguing over what color we should have painted the machines last year. They are -Every. Single. One.- oblivious to the fact that the system went off the rails something like 20 years ago.

If all they did was argue about machine painting, that might be understandable, but that is not the case. They are so dug so deep into their all-we-have-to-do-is-paint-the-machines factions that they don’t see that they have basically switched places with each other. The memes and bumper stickers that rail against Trump are basically the same ones that railed against Obama. “Obama is a Muslim” has been replaced with “Trump is a Nazi”. One side looked stupid when they did it, and now the other side looks equally stupid and neither of the realizes it. Again, it’s not about the politics, it’s about the foxhole mentality. Neither side will come out of their holes to listen to anything. Which was probably the plan all along.

Both sides use the same hateful condescending language. Liberals are the new bible thumpers. Saving the world from institutional bigotry is great, but the tools that the left uses are the same right-wing fundie bullshit: judgement, ridicule, and self-righteousness.

If you are sick of conservatives clutching their pearls in judgement of your secular hedonistic lifestyle, you don’t respond by clutching your own pearls in judgement of their fundamentalism. When my liberal friends attempt to deploy guilt and shame to enforce their world view, I just want to scream “WHAT ARE YOU A FUCKING CATHOLIC?”

What it’s like listening to all of this

I can’t help but feel like Arthur Dent in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”. I feel like the last sane person in a world that has gone mad.

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
“What?”
“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
Ford shrugged again.
“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happenned to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”
“But that’s terrible,” said Arthur.
“Listen, bud,” said Ford, “if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say ‘That’s terrible’ I wouldn’t be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.”

It’s Not the Economy, stupid.

The thing that bugs me the most is that both sides seem to be arguing petty cultural bullshit while corporations seize power hand over fist. Liberals and conservatives call for economic reforms without having a concept of basic economic principles. I understand why. It’s too complicated.

The Bush administration let the banks crash the economy; the Obama administration bailed them out; no one went to jail for it. The war on drugs is a war on poor people and people of color; prison is a multi-billion dollar private industry, as is war. There’s all the money in the world for prison and war, yet education and healthcare costs are skyrocketing. This is reality, but everyone wants to bitch about the economy. World going one way, people another.

For example, the difference between revenue and income. Revenue is simply a measure of the money that comes to you, income is a measure of what’s yours to keep. Most people think about their personal income with regard to income taxes, but to the government, income is a different animal. For corporations, income is a much bigger deal.

The issue I see a lot of people discussing is raising and lowering taxes with no real understanding of the difference between rates and margins. The tax rate is the amount that you are supposed to pay, the margin is the amount of your income and holdings that you actually hand over to the government. You can vote all you want to increase the rate, and if by some miracle you succeed it won’t make a single bit of difference because corporations don’t cheat on their tax rates, they cheat on their tax margins. You could double the tax rates on the rich and you might see a slight increase in tax *revenue*, but the government would likely end up with less tax *income*. But by all means, keep fighting about the rates.

I guess this is where the idea of a flat tax comes into play. This is where everyone pays the exact same rate regardless of their income, and there are absolutely no deductions. The actual rate could lower, say to 10% (like capital gains), and if you close all of the loopholes for bonuses, losses (real or fictitious), and the like, the government’s tax income could increase significantly. It would probably put an end to all of those tax haven schemes that are said to be hiding several trillion dollars (See the Mark Blythe video above).

The same thing is true for fiscal policy and monetary policy. Fiscal policy has to do with how the government spends money. Monetary policy is how the fed controls the money supply through interest rates. The two really don’t have much to do with one another, other than they sort of come into play at similar times. Low interest rates are supposed to spur borrowing, but they also discourage saving. Interest rates have gone about as low as they can, so not much else can be done by the fed to stimulate the economy. It’s up to the government to do the rest, but it can’t because Wall Street.

This is where all the complexity comes into play. I have ranted about this before, so I will do what I can to not duplicate the issue here. I am frustrated by the discussions that I see because the left and the right are arguing based on two narratives that don’t reflect reality.

Basically, engineering an economy always has unforeseen consequences. Not engineering an economy always has predictable consequences. The New Deal was probably the most ambitious attempt at engineering an economy, followed by the Clinton and Blair administrations’ campaigns to deregulate the economy in the late 90’s. Both maneuvers are what put us in the state that we are in now. The system gets modified and there are consequences.

Engineering an economy is impossible to get completely right, but that’s not the point. The point is that not engineering an economy is incredibly easy to get completely wrong. Neither narrative (pro-economic-engineering or anti-economic-engineering) captures the complexities of a national or global economy. Economies are made up of individuals. These individuals may or may not act rationally, and they may or may not act in their own self interest. That Hobbesian/Randian Zero Sum Game Theory is largely bullshit. Trying to create stability within a large and complex system that’s based on non-rational and illogical human behavior is foolish and will ultimately lead to nonpolitical forces seizing power. Non-political forces do not have to answer to The People, which is undermining The People’s liberty and will continue to undermine the social contract.

This is what I mean by the machinery of The West running amok. The machine isn’t doing what anyone wants, and no one can make it behave. The machine is too complex and the consequences of modifying it are too unpredictable. No one can change the system because no one can predict what the outcome of a change will be. So we just give up. We know that the best outcome is that it remains stable, so we argue over what color to paint the housing. This is the story of pretty much all of western civilization. The reality of the problem is so complex, so ugly, and requires so much consensus that there isn’t any solution. It’s bullshit, we know it, and we don’t do anything because we can’t imagine doing anything else.

When someone tells you a story that you believe so thoroughly that you can’t see reality, that’s the definition of a con. This is where I should get on my soapbox about a movement based on hacker ideals and disruptive technologies to give the power back to the people, but I just don’t have it in me. Also, such a cultural revolution would probably end like every other cultural revolution: in Soviet or Chinese style totalitarianism. Cheery thought, huh?

I hate separating hackers based on morality.

I have given a few talks recently to non-hacker audiences. In so doing, I learned that even at its most basic level, the idea of what hacking is, is kind of lost on “normal people.” The “Wanna Cry” malware couldn’t have better illustrated the things I was trying to teach.

It’s not that normies aren’t capable of understanding, it’s that they have been given the wrong information  by the government, the media, and popular culture for years. There is this fairly lame idea of hackers following  this sort of monochromatic gradient matching that of the old-west: the good guys wear white hats, the bad guys wear black hats, and there is a spectrum of moralities in between. There are legitimate ethics that guide hackers, they just aren’t the kinds that you hear about in movies and on TV:

  1. The Sharing Imperative – Hacking is a gift economy. You get tools, knowledge and code for free, so you have to share what you have learned to keep growing the pool.
  2. The Hands-On Imperative – Just like “real” science, you have to learn by doing. Take things apart, break them even, and learn how they work. Use that knowledge to create interesting things.
  3. The Community Imperative – Communities (geographic, philosophical, etc.) are how it gets done. Crews, clubs, chat rooms, hackerspaces, conferences, email lists, are all places for n00bs to ask questions and get flamed, and for l33ts to hold court.

Monochromatic Morality
The typical whitehat is a security researcher, penetration tester, or security consultant that only hacks the computers and networks that they have permission to hack. This can either be a lab environment built for research, a client who has retained security services, or an employer who has granted express permission. Whitehats then disclose their findings. This disclosure may be for the benefit of a client or an employer, or it may be to benefit the public. The key difference is that the whitehat first seeks permission and then shares their discovery for the benefit of others.

The typical blackhat is a generally considered to be a criminal. They hack systems that do not belong to them and then do not disclose their findings. The exploits that they develop are then hoarded and stockpiled for their benefit alone. The key difference is that blackhats do not seek permission, they do not disclose their findings, and they hack for the benefit of themselves.

The gray areas have to do with the degree to which a hacker has permission, discloses their findings, and how they profit from their activities. Whitehats are supposed to have “real” jobs and share everything, blackhats supposedly don’t have jobs and therefore hack for money. A typical grayhat might hack systems that don’t belong to them but then anonymously share their findings, or they might develop their exploits in a lab, but then sell those exploits rather than disclosing them.

In my professional life, I routinely employ hacking tools for the benefit of my employer, whether it’s scanning networks to find and fix problems, or cracking passwords to help users who have lost access to their computers. In previous jobs, I have exfiltrated research data from one network to another at the request of the data’s owner. While I don’t always have my employer’s explicit permission to do what I do, they hired me to fix problems for their users, so I do what it takes. The things that I learn, I then share and teach to others, whether that’s talks at conferences or Cinci2600 meetings, or posts on this blog. I have no idea where that falls in the white/gray spectrum.

Chromatic Pragmatism
red_vs_blueInstead of black and white, I prefer to look at hacking from a red vs. blue perspective. Regardless of your moral compass (or that of your employer), you are either on the offensive end which is the red team or the defensive end, which is blue team.

Teams are better terms to think in because hacking is a social activity. You may or may not be physically alone, but you are always learning from others. You read docs and code, you try stuff, you get stuck, you look up answers and ultimately ask someone for help. The idea of hackers as introverted smart kids living in their mom’s basements isn’t nearly as accurate as TV would have you believe.

Regardless of the reason why you are hacking a computer or a network, you are either the attacker or the defender. You are either probing defenses looking for  a way in, or you are hardening defenses to keep others out. You can further divide these activities into application vs. network security, but at that point the discussion is more about tools.

A great example of this is the people that run botnets. Once a bot-herder gets control of a computer (bad), they will then patch that computer (good) so that some other bot-herder doesn’t snatch it away from them (???).

Thinking about hacking in terms of offense and defense takes away all of the politics, business, and patriotism of your red and blue teams. If you are a red teamer, backed by your country’s military, you might be doing black hat stuff like seizing control of things that don’t belong to you for a “good” cause. You might be a blue teamer working for organized crime syndicate, doing white hat stuff like analyzing malware for “bad” people. You might be a whistle-blower or a journalist, exfiltrating stolen data to expose bad acts by a government.

Wanna Cry: with the good comes the bad, with the bad comes the good
The Wanna Cry debacle is interesting because of its timing, its origin, its disclosure, and its impact.

Its timing is interesting because nation-state political hacking is like half of all discussions when it comes to the Presidential election. Turns out that the USA hacks as much or more shit than Russia does.

Its origin is interesting because the tools in the leaked sample appear to come from the NSA. The leak comes from a group known as “Shadow Brokers.” They said they would auction the rest for a large sum of money. The world got a head start on an inevitable malware outbreak thanks to some bad guys doing a good thing by releasing something that they discovered. Something that the US Government had been hoarding to use against its enemies.

The disclosure is interesting because the first release is a free sample to prove the quality of the goods they intend to auction. This is the Golden Key problem in a nutshell: a tool, used by the good guys, falls into the hands of the bad guys, and chaos ensues.

The zero-day exploit exposed by the leaked tools was then used to implement a large scale ransomware attack that severely affected systems in Europe and the UK. A researcher was able to locate a call in the ransomware to deactivate the malware, which stopped the attack dead in its tracks. There are lots of theories about this strange turn of events, but my personal theory is that the ransomware campaign was a warning shot. Possibly to prove out a concept, possibly to urge everyone to patch against the vulnerability before a proper villain did some real damage with it.

The idea that NSA tools were compromised and disclosed by a criminal organization, turns the whole black hat/white hat thing on its head. The NSA was hoarding exploits and not disclosing them, which is total black hat move. Shadow Brokers exposed the tools, prompting a widespread campaign to fix a number of vulnerabilities, which is a total white hat move. So you have a government agency, a “good guy”, doing black hat things, and a criminal organization, a “bad guy”, doing white hat things.

If you want to talk about the specifics of the hack, the NSA’s blue team didn’t do its job, and the Shadow Brokers’ red team ate the NSA’s lunch. The blue team’s principle was a server where attacks were either launched or controlled. This server was the red team’s target. It’s a pretty epic win for the red team because the NSA is a very advanced hacking group, possibly the best in the world.

The Nature of Freedom

A few cultural events have caused me to think a lot about freedom lately. Of course our new Presidential administration has had an effect, but also some films, television programs, and documentaries. Also, I have been assisting my local political community and the results are pretty depressing.

One film that I saw was “Arrival“. It is based on a short story called “The Story Of Your Life” which goes into more philosophical detail than the film, and centers on the idea of free will. The aliens in the film can see time in a planar rather than linear fashion. Because of that, they have no concept of free will. Knowing what is coming leaves them with no choice but to play their parts to contribute to the known outcome. Speaking to others isn’t so much an exchange of ideas as it is a declaration or codification of events, like announcing a winner, or pronouncing someone dead. Reading the story left me feeling that I had broken my brain in some fundamental way.

Not long after that, I started watching “Westworld“. The hosts in West World are driven by code which is interpreted by their central processing units. Because they store memories digitally, they don’t remember things, and instead reload (relive) them. As a mercy to the hosts, their memories are erased on a regular basis. Something within the code that governs the hosts causes them to start remembering and all hell breaks loose. Again this idea, while fictional, made me think about the nature of freedom.

The idea of reality as a lived experience, the cognitive lens that we see the world through, is based on recollection of previous experiences. Our human memories are not perfect; we cannot retrieve bit-for-bit copies of stored data the way that a computer can. We cannot go back and relive an experience the way that a host from Westworld can. As we experience something, it is colored by a complex mix of emotions and bias. These imperfect and colorized recollections then shape how we experience new things. These new experiences, perceived through our flawed cognition, are then stored using that same flawed mechanism, making it even more flawed. As humans age and grow, their cognition becomes a kind of degenerative corruption of observation. Your lived experience might actually just be shitty encoding.

As I watched these works of fiction, I have also begun to listen to intellectuals dissect the ideas of freedom. I watched a series of documentary films by Adam Curtis. The idea of this series, is that efforts have been made to reduce the idea of humanity into self-serving automata. This numeric representation of humans relies on a kind of rational strategy that guides us. The problem with this simplified view of course is that it ignores the shitty encoding that guides human decision making.

The documentary series points out the use of Zero Sum Game Theory in modern political, economic, and even biological research. This cynical approach led to the dissolution of the idea of human individuality and the rise of popular psychology which uses drugs to manage human behavior. Oversimplification of human behavior leads to a kind of segregation based on small sets of variables, rather than meritocracy. The result is the corporate-run caste system that we have today. More importantly there are two varieties of freedom: one of struggle and coercion based on violent radicalism, and one of meaningless consumerism. Meaningless consumerism is how The West operates without violent revolution; people are free to do whatever they want, so long as all they want to do is watch TV and buy things.

This my issue with the western idea of freedom. It is a comfortable existence; it’s largely devoid of bloodshed, but it is also largely devoid of meaning. Buying new things – says the guy with 4 laptops – isn’t making yourself any happier. Watching TV – says the guy who came to this conclusion by watching movies and TV – doesn’t help you to improve yourself. Being a radical freedom fighter isn’t the alternative, and it’s not like you can bring down corporatism in a bloodless and market-friendly manner. What you can do, however, is diversify. Instead of using violence to coerce others into your idea of freedom, I think that you can build communities around ideas other than meaningless conformity and draconian order. Organizing into communities is the start, but you have to go much further.

Paradoxically (or perhaps ironically), I criticize the tendency for governments and corporations to reduce humanity into numerical figures, yet I cannot help but to see political and economic systems as complex networks. I am an avid proponent of peer-to-peer networking, of decentralization, and the mistrust of authority. In a peer-to-peer network, there are no clients and servers, there are only nodes. The power of the Internet is not that it connects nodes, but that it connects networks of nodes. We, as individuals, have to organize ourselves into networks that pursue and produce meaningful things. Individuality is important, but agency may actually be more important. Having freedoms that you do not make use of is pretty much the same as not having freedoms to begin with. If you are a corporate-run fascist state, it’s probably a better for you if your subjects ignore their freedoms. Convincing them to do that might be part of your game plan.

This is the idea that I am moving around in my mind. What is freedom? Do we in The West actually have it? Did we lose it or did we give it away? The thought process is similar to the Orwell vs. Huxley debate, but I think it goes further because it should take into account human tendencies. Huxley kind of does with his societal focus on people being distracted from the importance of the self, but Orwell does not because he is more focused on the politics of violence and fear. My fear is that both Huxley and Orwell are right. That we are being duped into willingly ignoring essential liberties so that a powerful and violent elite can manipulate everything to their benefit. Honestly, I prefer pondering the nature of cognition, the nature of free will, and the nature of humanity because the idea of “Huxleying your way into full Orwell” scares me to death.

Windows Hyper-V Manager is Stupid

I spend many hours at work in the middle of the night. Sometimes I work on my own things by connecting to my gear at home. I call this telecommuting in reverse. In order to facilitate my reverse telecommute, I use a couple of machines, one Linux box I call Hub, for OpenVPN, SSH, and NeoRouter, and one Windows machine I call Portal, for Teamviewer, Remote Desktop, and to run my DNS hosts Windows-only dynamic DNS client. Hub died, and so I figured I would run the two machines on one box via XenServer or Virtualbox. It turns out that the hardware for Portal doesn’t do Linux very well. So I decided to take a run at virtualization with Hyper-V. Hyper-V Server 2012 R2 lets you evaluate the product indefinitely, so I thought that would be a good place to start.

After downloading the ISO, which is hard to locate on the MS TechNet site, I burned it to disk and wiped Portal and loaded Hyper-V Server and configured a static IP for it. This isn’t a high end box, it’s a dual core AMD with 8gb of ram. It’s fine for using Windows 7 as a springboard to get into my home network. I just want to spin up a couple of low end Linux boxes and a Windows machine. The sconfig.cmd tool is fine for the basics of setting up the box, but since I am not much of a powershell guy, I wanted to use the Hyper-V manager on another workstation. I was trying to do this without having to pirate anything, and it turned out to be a complete waste of time.

Hyper-V Manager and the Hyper-V Server that it can manage is basically a matched set. You can use the manager on Windows 7 to connect to Hyper-V on Server 2008 and earlier. You can’t really use Win7 or Win10 to manage 2012 R2. So, I basically have to either pirate Server 2008, pirate Win8.1, or pirate Server 2016. Or, I can just use a ProHVM, a third party tool from a Swedish company that seems to have been invented specifically because Hyper-V Manager is the worst.

Even with ProHVM, it’s not all champagne and roses. Accessing the console of a VM causes wonky keyboard performance. This is mildly frustrating, so I recommend using a mouse as much as possible for configuration of a VM. The only real showstopper is logging in to a Linux box with no GUI. Having only 50% of your keystrokes register makes logging into the console completely impossible because you don’t see the *** to let you know which character you are on.

My workaround for Debian VMs is to not set a root password, which forces Debian to disable root in favor of sudo, like Ubuntu. Then you set a very short password for your user account (like 12345, same as the combination to my luggage) and make certain that you set up an SSH server during setup. Then you can SSH to the box and use the ‘passwd’ command to reset the password to something more secure. Then you can configure SSH keys for your logins.

So if you find yourself in a situation where you need to do virtualization on Windows, and you are deeply invested in the idea of using 2012 R2, don’t bother with Hyper-V manager. Instead, download ProHVM, and then use ProHVM as little as possible. It’s free for non-commercial use and you can build new VMs and all that stuff that you *should* be able to use Hyper-V Manager for.

The Nintendo Switch, or how I learned to stop worrying and learned to love buying consoles

The Nintendo Switch is out and I am pretty pumped about it. I haven’t purchased one yet, so my exuberance may wane a bit once I do.

My preference for video gaming systems is much like my political affiliation: I pretty much hate everything.

I love video games, but I am normally not fond of video gamers. As a community, the toxicity is palpable, so the online experience just isn’t a factor for me. I prefer to play video games with people that I know in the real world, so for me the Playstation and the XBox are roughly equal, and the Nintendo has a real advantage over the others.

In my mind, Nintendo is a completely different category of gaming from the PC, XBox, or Playstation. In time, I usually end up with all 4 systems. I just usually wait for a few years to pick up the current PS or XBox. As of this writing, I still don’t have an XBone or PS4 and I am thinking about skipping them. Sure there are exclusives that I could be missing, but honestly, I don’t really care. I still play tons of Skyrim, so I am not really missing much.

The reason that I think of Nintendo as a wholly different platform than all others is that the Nintendo pushes the envelope for hardware, not necessarily for video games. Sure, they have a roster of characters, and a few franchises that you can bank on for release on new platforms. The craziest example has to be controlling a game with bongos.

While bongos were probably the riskiest idea, the Wii had to be the most successful. The idea of using movement to interact with a game was duplicated by every other console. The Wii U added the ability to use the tablet to play “real” console games that ran on another machine, essentially ushering in the idea of streaming games. The nVidia shield and it’s various competitors owe Nintendo for introducing the concept to the living room. Now Nintendo is taking its act on the freeway?

I know it’s easy to dismiss the Nintendo as gimmicky, and targeted at kids. I play a fair amount of Nintendo games with my kids. A common Friday night activity at our house for the two older kids was popping a bunch of popcorn and the whole family playing Mario Party or Mario Kart. Now I am looking forward to the day when we can do the same with the two little ones. Just because the stable of characters is popular with kids doesn’t mean that it’s not a serious platform. Nintendo’s decision to make the tablet the center of the gaming experience is an interesting one. I am eager to see the long term effects it has on gaming and computing.

I can’t praise Nintendo’s bold visions without also talking about Microsoft’s lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, I like the XBox, it’s well executed and represents the height of console gaming design. The MS vision is many things, but it is not bold. MS seems to prefer taking known entities and perfecting them, much like Apple does with mobile phones. Playing shooters or fighting games on the XBox is great, but the price point for that experience is extreme. The XBone is still around $250 even though it’s pushing 4 years in age and an upgrade is on the horizon.

I call every cop show on TV CSI

My mother is a big fan of cop shows. My only exposure to them is when I visit her during prime time. Because I either stream or torrent all of the TV I watch, I have completely lost touch with broadcast television and commercials. Watching TV with my mom is fairly surreal for me.

I don’t have anything against cop shows. Some of my favorite shows, like The Wire, True Detective, and Luther are cop shows. It’s just that there have been so many variations of the police procedural program on TV for so many years that it seems like a running joke. So I call every cop show on TV CSI: with the one feature that I notice.

Here are a few examples:

CSI: Goth Girl – All I know about this show is that the writers don’t understand how IP addresses work. Also, it’s been on the air for like 15 years. Surely Goth Girl has grown up to be a Goth Woman by now? Maybe she settled down, married a Goth Guy? Had a couple of Goth Kids? Sure, I make fun of Goth Girl, but I also deeply respect her commitment to the Goth Lifestyle. I was all about Punk Rock until I went into the military and they shaved my head. Then I never looked back.

CSI: Hacker Girl – This is another show that doesn’t get how comically easy it is to change an IP. It’s totally possible to match up IP info with other details, but it will take a long time and probably require cooperation with foreign governments that may or may not extradite to the US. Or, you know, the cooperation of a huge and totally illegal NSA surveillance program.

Anyway, the technical dialogue in this show is laughable, but the idea that some nerd holed up in a dark place surrounded by computers is a major contributor to the success of a mission is pretty cool. Also the gear she uses looks pretty cool. One point of order tho, why are there so many screens outside of her field of vision? I am total diva when it comes to monitors, so I understand the need for many, it’s just that turning your head to see a screen really interferes with your productivity.

CSI: Cop Killer – I love that my mom watches this show because she was suuuuuper worried about the music I listened to in the 90’s, like Bodycount. Our media landscape is funny in that 90’s white people were scared of Ice-T, and then he became a weeknight TV staple. On a cop show.

I love Ice-T memes so much that I have created my own narrative for his CSI character. Ice-T blames the LAPD for the riots in 1992 and has infiltrated the LAPD under a false ID. Now he is slowly destroying the LAPD by tricking the detectives into investigating nonsense crimes and thereby wasting their resources.

CSI: Pun Glasses I have no idea if my mom watches this show or not, but there’s a meme for it and I have an awful pun about puns, so by law I have to put it on the list.

For all of the crap that I give television, especially cop shows, there are a few cop shows that I’m a big fan of. Only about half of them are American, which even I think is a bit pretentious.