Sunday, May 31, 2020

Day 72: Paperwork

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 71 or Day 73.
Every few months I go through all the paperwork I received. The bills should already have been paid, but I use that pass to make sure of it. Then I digitize all relevant mail.
My wife and I receive about 400 letters per year that need to be archived (and about twice that volumes that get shredded right away). That includes all bills, account balances, information from banks, insurances, and the government. As we had to take over all paperwork for my parents-in-law in 2014, we established a "scan line". All documents receive a unique serial number, get scanned & OCRed, and then archived on my NAS (with regular backups).

My process line includes the following devices and soft-/hardware:
  • A numbering stamp apparatus: It automatically increases the number stamped on every application of the stamp and therefore allows the creation of serial numbers for the document. I manually set the first two digits to match the last two digits of the year. This creates a Year-2100-problem for me, but I am happy should I still be alive to experience it.
  • A Brother ADS-1600W scanner: Initially I tried a printer/scanner combination. But that created too many problems as the sheet feeder was not up to the tasks of scanning thousands of pages. The feeder of the Brother scanner is not perfect but sufficient. The biggest problem lies outside the domain of the scanner.
  • A QNAP TS-1277 NAS: This has become my swiss army knife for my home IT. I have a lot of disk space (very fast with a 10GBit/s network card), can run VMs and Docker containers.
  • The ABBY Finereader 15 corporate edition: IMHO the best OCR software I have ever seen. It also compresses the scanned PDF by a factor of 10 or more while making it searchable. I had to buy the corporate edition to automate the workflow as much as possible (using the Hotfolder component).
I really hate that task. But the result is really useful. It has become so easy to retrieve a document (e.g. for filing the tax returns), that it saves a lot of work in the long run. We have all the documents at our fingertips when working at the PC.

The most tedious task is not to scan but to name the documents. While scanning is a simple mechanical task (except the problems due to stapling: see below), naming requires attention and concentration. In order to retrieve the files easily, a lot is coded into the file name:
  • The serial number of the document
  • The abbreviated name(s) of the recipient(s)
  • The name of the sender
  • The subject of the document (e.g. "bill electricity")
  • The full date when sent
  • Flags for "tax relevant" and "healthcare-relevant"
I hope one day an AI may assist me in doing that task, but currently, it would still take weeks of work to automate it. I have ideas for a partially automated workflow but not enough time to try it. Going through about 100 documents currently takes about 2 hours. The concentration is needed to avoid small changes in the naming. I often have to look up how I previously named a similar document.

There are some nuisances when doing paperwork:
  • Staples: They are my enemy number one. It is easy to overlook (especially when small staples are used and e.g. just pages 3 & 4 are stapled together) that 20th-century crap. Even when removed carefully, formerly stapled pages are the number one reason for jams on the scanner side. You can really get on my bad side of me by using those things.
  • Needle printer: Like staples, those machines should have died out decades ago. Together with fading ink ribbons, they create barely readable letters that impair the OCR. When I get one of those, I guess the sender is writing his invoices on an original IBM PC with MS-DOS 3.11 and printing them through a Centronics parallel interface.
  • Glue: Some companies use glue to fix things to the letter (e.g. customer or credit cards). That really involves a lot of work to scan those letters properly.
Usually, when I do several months of paperwork in one go, at some point I get fed up with it. Then I need to sit down and do something different for a while (e.g. write a blog post).

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Day 71: Bumblebee watching

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 70 or Day 72.

I'm not a nature guy. You probably wouldn't have guessed that from my blog. But there are some exceptions and one of those is watching bumblebees.

Somehow those small guys fascinate me. They are kind of clumsy but they make it up with 100% determination. Perhaps due to that attitude I can relate to them.


But even the busiest bumblebee needs some rest sometimes. Up until a few months ago, I did not know that they sleep in flowers.


That is a level cuteness usually reserved for cats.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Day 70: Swapfiets

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 69 or Day 71.

So my bike was stolen on Wednesday, I am already mobile again on Friday. Thanks to bike-as-a-service.

Some friends on social media suggested to me, that 20 years is an age where a bicycle should be replaced anyway. And I was already thinking about that. But the decision was to use my old one more until I knew better, what I want from a new bike. I am torn between a classic bike or a pedelec. While currently in halfway decent shape, the time is visible on the horizon where an electrical assist will come handy. Going for the future-proof version easily triples the costs. Beside this major choice, there are a myriad of other design decisions, I don't want to make in a hurry.

So I was looking for an interim solution.

Swapfiets was a suggestion of a friend when I complained to him about my missing bike. As IT-person, service-oriented offerings have their own appeal. With less than 20 Euro per month, the cost of any error is cheap.

The service part went 95% perfect. The registration was easy and painless. I registered for the service on Wednesday afternoon and on Thursday morning I received a call to choose a time window to pickup my swapfiets. Usually they would also bring it to me, but due to Corona this part of the service is limited and incurs waiting time. As the location is easily reached, I agreed to a pickup on Friday afternoon.

So here it is:


It is a no-frills-bicycle that has been optimized for easy maintainability. It seems pretty robust and I could not find any technical faults even though it was not a new one.

The swapfiets comes with 7 gears (more than enough), builtin lock (more on that later), always-on light and (this is IMHO the biggest catch) back pedal brake. If I hurt myself in a traffic accident, probably the brake will be the reason. While it is hard to train a new skill (e.g. to use that brake) it is even harder to un-train existing skills (that lead to unintentional braking).

I have a muscle memory that is perfectly trained to move the pedals into a position for optimal thrust when not actively working as propulsion. When my legs do that now, they activate the brakes. This leads to a negative feedback loop as the legs now try to get into the optimal acceleration position even faster. The only hand brake is on the right side, which hand I usually use to keep me upright at the post of the traffic light. This also leads to interesting coordination problems. People behind me probably thought that I was driving the first time on a bicycle.

Another (literally small) problem is the saddle. As pressure is force divided by surface, the use is painful for me. But that is solvable as I am allowed to change it (I have to re-attach the original one when I return the swapfiets).

When you're thinking about using it too, there is something you need to be aware off: the lock.


It is not just one locks but two combined. One lock is a chain that can be used to attach the lock somewhere and a second one to block the rear wheel. The key of the lock can only be removed in case both locks are closed. So you cannot attach they key to your key ring as it has to be in the lock while driving. The advantage is that you cannot forget the lock at home (who would do that?) and in case of a theft, your own contribution on the replacement is quite small (60 Euros). This is not always very practical for the user, but acceptable.

Overall I can say: Swapfiets is exactly what the company advertises. A minimal bicycle as a service. They were really fast in my case and they deliver a sturdy, easy-to-use bike. The major disadvantage only applies, if you're not used to a back pedal brake. For me that is quite a bummer. But see it positive: I now am really motivated not let the interim period last too long. It is a workable solution for short distances, but nothing I would plan to do longer tours with.



Thursday, May 28, 2020

Day 69: Review "Westworld - Season 3" (TV series)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 68 or Day 70.

We're not in Kansas anymore with the third season of "Westworld".


Now our dear one-woman-army consisting of Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood), Dolores (played by Thessa Thompson) and Dolores (played by Clifton Colins Jr. and others) is travelling around the world to bring down the world that enslaved her. And she is not good at making prisoners...

Contrary to my last review of a series, I cannot complain about the level of acting. It is really top notch. I could not name a single role that is not excellently cast. But I have to confess that I am partial to every picture that has Ed Harris in it. Vincent Kassel has the role of the antagonist. He represents the system that enslaved the robots (or hosts as they are called) in order to create much of the data for his AI.

I think it was the right decision to leave the original Westworld island behind. There would have been little left to tell there. The new world stuns with fantastic architecture shots. It really feels like a future world, but lacks the dirt and dust of the Western scenario. Partially due to that they do not achieve the same level of immersion as they did with the first two seasons. The world feels, even though more populated, less alive and sometimes sterile.

The story is not as catching as it has been in the initial seasons. The plot holes are more apparent and numerous, but still below average compared to other TV series. It was really hard for me to understand the motivation of Maeve (played by Thandiwe Newton). It felt a bit as if they just had to find a way for the re-appearance of one of the favorite characters. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) has also made it into the human world, but his part remains peripheral and without obvious purpose. Perhaps that is just a preparation for a spin-off or season four with him as main character.

Overall I enjoyed this season but the series is showing some strain. As with many TV series, the authors struggle to keep the initial high level.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Day 68: Goodbye old friend....

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 67 or Day 69.

Today a companion for 20 years was stolen from me...

I bought this bike in 2000. It served me well, survived a crash with a car (where I broke several bones), years of neglect while stowed away in a shed and several repair shops.

But today I left my home without my jacket (it was so warm and sunny) not thinking of the lock in the pocket. So when I arrived at my destination, I had no lock. As it was early in the morning and I would only be away for 20 minutes, I thought I could leave it there without the usual safety precaution. One of my worse ideas...


It did not look like much, but it worked really fine and has proven nearly indestructible.

I walked around in the neighborhood tonight, hoping for a lazy thief. But no such luck....

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Day 67: Tandoori-Peach-Turkey-Curry

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 66 or Day 68.

One thing I like about the home office: I get to cook more.

Today I improvised a dish based on Turkey breast, Peaches, Tandoori-spices, cream, onions and curcuma rice.


Serving:


Ingredients:

  • 1.5 pounds of turkey breast (in small slices, marinated with olive oil and sweet pepper powder)
  • 2 diced red onions 
  • 3 diced spring onions
  • 2 table spoons of tandoori spice
  • 1 cup of cream
  • 1 large can of peaches (mashed)
  • 1 small can of  sliced peaches

Monday, May 25, 2020

Day 66: Is it over yet?

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 65 or Day 67.

When I look outside, someone seems to have declared the Corona crisis to be over.

For the last 14 days I can observe that the initially very disciplined response is slacking more and more. Especially the last weekend with it's opening of (some) restaurants has led a lot of people to believe that we have completed the trials.

Safety measures are still observed where those are enforced (e.g. when denied entry into the supermarket without mask). But in unregulated areas (e.g. parks) I notice a significant shift. People form groups, stand close together without any mask and shake hands or hug.

Guess we're working hard to earn our right for a second wave....

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Day 65: DIY Haircut

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 64 or Day 66.

The hair was getting too long, but the hair stylists are still on limited operations: appointment only, full contact data, difficult to reach, etc. So I did the G.I. Jane...

During my online birthday party I mentioned that I was unhappy with the length of my hair (takes too long to dry, too curly) to my guests. As it turned out, one of my friends had a surplus hair trimmer. He on the other hand was short on Lasagna Al Forno some which I had cooked for my wife and me. As usual, my portions tend to be rather large. So we agreed to an exchange.

This morning I've put the machine to work and the results are not perfect but OK. On the back side I had some help.

As a friend described it: "I have seen worse".



Saturday, May 23, 2020

Day 64: My Corona Party

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 63 or Day 65.

Today I celebrated my birthday. Due to the circumstances, a normal party was out of the question for me. So I organized an online event.

As already discussed, I setup a Jitsi-Server (I will discuss the installation in more details in a separate blog post) and sent out invitations to my friends (rather late, those went on Thursday).

I used a hosted system on Amazon AWS. To be on the safe side I used an EC2 instance of the c5n.4xlarge type (16 cores, 42 GB RAM). With about 0,80$ per hour, this will be the cheapest party I have thrown for decades. I will have to pay extra for the traffic and I am really interested to learn the exact amount. But I doubt it will be a significant sum.

From the ~30 people invited, 20 attended. This would have been an excellent ratio with the best planned party, considering the two days lead time it was just spectacular and I am really grateful for my friends. Not all attended at the same time (the maximum number of participants at any moment was 12). The attendance was boosted by the fact, that nobody had to travel. We had participants from five cities and two countries.

There were some technical problems, but all those were solved within a few minutes (usually by reconnecting or putting the mobile phone into the fridge). 8 weeks of home office have dealt a lot of lessons already. The technology of Jitsi is sufficiently mature and stable. I am really impressed by that open source solution.

In total it was a nice party and I had good and long talks to people close and dear to me. So I consider it a complete success.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Day 62: Setting up a Jitsi-Server (Part 1)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 61 or Day 63.

On Saturday, I want to celebrate my birthday. But a classic party is out of the question. So my idea was to host a video conference for my friends and drink coffee and eat cake virtually together.

Though I use Teams, Zoom, WebEx and Hangouts on my job and Discord for private purposes, I want something people can use without registering, installing a client or working with a provider they dislike.

The solution seemed easy: setting up my own Jitsi instance.

The initial progress was fine. I installed a clean Ubuntu based on version 18.04, created SSH Key Pair and logged in.

The next steps were:

  1. Adding the repository for Jitsi:

    # echo 'deb https://download.jitsi.org stable/' >> /etc/apt/sources.list.d/jitsi-stable.list

    # wget -qO - https://download.jitsi.org/jitsi-key.gpg.key | apt-key add -

    # apt-get update
  2. Adding some lines to "/etc/systemd/system.conf":

    DefaultLimitNOFILE=65000
    DefaultLimitNPROC=65000
    DefaultTasksMax=65000


    followed by a

    # systemctl daemon-reload
  3. The install Jitsi:

    # apt-get -y install jitsi-meet
    When asked for the certificate, I recommend to go for the self signed at first and get the correct one later. For this step you need to know the FQDN for your Jitsi instance and the DNS entry should point to the correct IP.
  4. Then get a correct certificate via Let's Encrypt:

    # /usr/share/jitsi-meet/scripts/install-letsencrypt-cert.sh
After a few seconds you'll have you own Jitsi server up and running. You can now connect to your server using Firefox or Chrome (WebRTC is required). You can now create your own Meetings.

BUT SO CAN EVERYONE ELSE who knows the FQDN of your server. He just connects to https://<your-fqdn>/<new-room-name> and a new meeting spawns into existence.

Up to this point everything was pretty easy. But that was not what I wanted to achieve. My plan was:
  • To create a new meetings, one has to be a registered user and to authenticate
  • Anonymous users are still allowed, but can only connect to existing meetings.
In theory this should have been easy as well. There is a short tutorial available. Unluckily it turned out to be much more complex. I can count myself lucky as a I had a lot of help from a friend. Tomorrow I will write down the steps I needed to take.





Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Day 61: Improvised meal

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 60 or Day 62.

Sometimes you have to cook what is on hands...

In this case it was a lot of vegetable, some chicken and some Okonomi sauce:


The Okonomi sauce was a surprise find in our spices storage. Originally I wanted to prepare some Okonomiyaki at home, but I never managed. The sauce went excellent with the other components. I served this with some basmati rice.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Day 60: Conferencing WITH video

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 59 or Day 61.

Thanks to Corona, I am doing currently about 30-50 conference calls per week. Based on 8 weeks of experience (best estimate: 300+ calls), I can only recommend: Turn your video on.

I am a kind of hybrid. My education and my initial job were purely technical. I started my career as software developer writing C code. Then I turned to the dark side. At first I became a manager and afterwards a sales guy.

Due to this upbringing, I nowadays talk in my job to several different groups: managers, procurement and engineers.

In those discussions I observed two things:

  • The more technical the people in the conference, the less participants have video enabled.
  • The conference calls without videos were less productive on average.
One has to be careful as correlation does not imply causation.

But I have discussed this by now with several people around me. All share my impression:

  • A meeting where all or most participant have their video stream enabled tend to go a lot more smoothly.
  • Not seeing the other person increases the social distance, especially if there is (as currently) no other contact beside the conference calls.
  • Technicians in general dislike activating their camera. Even when there is the option to hide (obscure) the private space, they "don't want" to use their camera.
I can totally relate that one does not want to be filmed the whole day. But not being seen comes at a price too. When "being a colleague" means you're just another voice on the phone, work becomes a lot harder for you. We humans are social animals and we do not just use our voice to communicate.

My recommendation would be:
  • Turn on your video when you enter the conference and during the small talk.
  • When you say something that is longer than one sentence, also enable your video.
It is OK, to turn off the video stream when you're just a listener. But if you say something, you usually want to achieve something. This is much easier when the others perceive you as person. This is much easier for the others, if they can see you.

It is also OK, not to stream the whole conference call. Me too, I turn off the video when eating, drinking or blowing my nose. But don't forget to turn it on again, when you give your report.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Day 59:Planting Season

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 58 or Day 60.

It is spring, planting season...

Of course I am helping:


My wife and I are working together on this: I empty the cans and she fills them with young tomato saplings.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Day 58: Completed "The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt"

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 57 or Day 59.

Five years after I started the game, I finally completed "The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt". It took me longer than expected.

In total I have spent more than 80 hours playing this part. I had played (and completed) the first part, but left the second part unfinished. So I thought I knew what me expected, I did not.


The Witcher-series is well known for the wealth of side-quests and areas to explore, but the last part has taken this to completely new level. You have to ignore side-quests at some point to reach the end in a reasonable time, but I even put on some blinders to finally reach the end of the main quest.

When I say "it took me longer than expected" I just don't refer to the total time played or the five years alone. Beside that the "end game" took (for my taste) too long. I expected to be done after the Battle of Kaer Morhen but afterwards it was beck to some "go-fetch" quests. That was when I put on the aforementioned blinders and ignored things right and left that I would not have ignored before. Probably the outcome in "my world" suffered from it.

Some quests in the game rate among the bests I have played in a computer game. But at some point I got too exhausted to follow even the more important story parts. That is partially responsible for the multi-year hiatus after passing through Novigrad.

The other problem were the game controls. I never felt in 100% control of the Witcher. It improved when I switched from Keyboard & Mouse to an XBox controller, but the feeling did not disappear completely. The fights where I played Ciri were more enjoyable than those with Geralt. Nevertheless the immersion in the fights was far away from what I felt in "Shadow of Mordor". I did not enjoy re-acquiring the fighting skills with the Controller and I would rate myself to be a miserable fighter by Witcher standards.

The Witcher 3 contains an incredible amount of in-game cut scenes. At some point they were too much for me as I had to go through some of them multiple times (using more and more the "skip" option). On the other hand they clearly showed the amount of love for details that went into that game. The open world is for me the real star. The quality and density of content is unrivaled. The game achieves the impression of a "living world". It is not perfect in that regard but the best open world game I played.

When playing Geralt of Rivia, you are granted a lot of freedom. I always tend to be the Witcher with the golden heart, but that backfired sometimes in surprising ways. That enhanced the credibility of the story.

Even without mods the graphics quality is still good and you can bring it (using mods) to a fantastic level. I resisted the urge to install some of them, I did not want to risk the integrity of my save game.

The game was well worth the money I spent on it. But I currently doubt that I will play one of the extensions or start a replay. With the TV series and now the finale, I overdosed a bit.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Day 57: The strange mystery of Paula Volsky

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 56 or Day 58.

Paula Volsky has written some of the best fantasy novels I've ever read. But she is also some kind of enigma for me. There is no writer on whose book I've spent so much time chasing them down.

I have reviewed one of her books earlier in this blog. For some (probably good) reasons she wrote those under the name of Paula Brandon, but it was common knowledge that it was her.


But even though those books were excellent, the best book from her in my eyes is "Illusion". The only chance to get it is to search in the "used books" section. It is unavailable everywhere else. I have a several decades old copy of it (unluckily only in German) and I re-read it every few years. The book is such a masterfully intertwined story. A part of the book is a retelling of the French Revolution in a fantasy world with magic. It recreates the setup of the ancien regime and let's it fall apart. The story follows Eliste vo Derrivale, a young noble provincial woman becoming part of the court, getting caught up in the revolution plus the following reign of terror, living homeless on the streets of the capital and (in the end) taking part in the revolution against the revolution. That Paula Volsky was able to combine all this (and a lot more) into a single novel that reads totally immersive and credible, is a feat that defies belief. I would rate it easily among the top 3 novels I've ever read (and the total number read is several thousands strong).

So naturally I wanted more from her. I chased down all of her books, one by one. At some point I paid more than 20$ (without shipping) for a 30+ years old paperback copy of one of her books. With a single exception (The Grand Ellipse), none of her books is available in digital format. Even with her most current books (see the link at the top for the review) there is no digital version. On Amazon some used books of her are sold at 200+$. From what I see, I am not alone with my appreciation of her writing. So there is clearly a market for books she has already written, but it is not served. I have no idea why. It would be great if I could load up her books on my ebook reader for re-reading.

Her entry on Wikipedia is very short on details and as far as I know, she has no social media presence or home page. What is written about her is short on sources. Usually I am good on finding out things and I have a black belt in Google Fu. But except one sentence in 2008 from a fellow author in a forum, I came up empty handed.

So all I can do is hope that she is doing well. I wish her all the best and silently hope that my mystery writer at some point surprises me with more books.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Day 56: Bun Update

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 55 or Day 57.

Thanks to the support of my baking coach, my buns are improving.

This is how they look now:


Due to the Corona-based home office, I'm baking my own buns about 3-4 times a week. That are a lot of opportunities for learning. And I managed to avoid another disaster....

According to my baking coach, I still have a long way to go. But I am happy and so is the primary customer (aka wife).

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Day 55: Review "The Last Kingom - Season 4" (TV series)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 54 or Day 56.

Uthred, Son of Utrhred is stumbling through his fourth season on Netflix. I liked the first season, but each consecutive one less and less.


The series suffered starting with episode 1 from one key aspect: the main character. I do not think that Alexander Dreymon was an ideal cast. He is regularly outplayed by his supporting cast. He doesn't come even close to the performance of David Dawson as Alfred the Great, who carried a large part of the first seasons on his shoulders. But they got rid of that competition at the end of season 3. Nevertheless the failings were initially acceptable as the unusual perspective, a man torn between Saxons and Danes, and the unusual setup, England in the 9th century, were novel and offered a lot of entertainment.

But the plot wears thin. Every threatening great leader of the Danes that is subdued or killed is replaced in the next episode. There is intrigue at the court, every victory is followed by a setback, former friends become enemies or vice versa. The only positive aspect of season 4 is the addition of Stefanie Martini as Eadith. She manages to transport some complexity that is sorely missing.

Overall I do not think that there will be a season 5 for me. Perhaps I will invade England myself.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Day 54: An important helper

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 53 or Day 55.

For an offensive, one needs allies or helpers. Here is mine.

I bought this ergometer in May 2019 on eBay. The main advantage compared to my bike is the usual absence of rain in my basement and the lack of aggressive car drivers at the same location. Rain during winter in Northern Germany is very little fun and and a car driver put me in hospital with a broken clavicle once. So both advantages really help my motivation.



And that motivation shows: Yesterday I finished my 200th hour workout on it. I managed to "ride" 5955 km or 3700 miles in that time.


Usually I have an average output of 150W during an exercise. The calculation to convert the given data into lost body weight is left as an exercise to the reader.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Day 53: Important Education

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 52 or Day 54.

What were the most important steps in my education? There are obvious answers like school and the university, but they matter less or in a different way that one would initially think.

That does not imply my time at the Christian-Albrechts-Universit├Ąt was not important, but rather by proxy. My degree in computer science was up to 80+% a degree in mathematics and rather theoretical. The most important skill I learned was to formulate complex problems in a concise and precise language. That is a valuable skill but not earth-shattering.

The school also taught me one important lesson and it was about how much the teacher matters. I could go from being close to failing to star pupil within six months just by exchanging the person standing in front of the class. By that lesson, I also learned how much random chance does influence your path. I was several times just a hair's breadth away from getting tossed out from high school. Remaining there depended less on me than on some teachers who went on the bat for me. It was nothing I deserved or earned. I cannot imagine how many people's careers got derailed because they did not have as much luck as I had.

But the most important part of my education happened at the university but not through the university and was no part of the curriculum. I got involved with the student council for my department. This was at a time of conflict. Germany was going through a time of economic crisis and funding was short. Also, the curriculum was getting out of touch with the job requirements and was threatening the value of the education. Both issues angered me and I wanted to do something about it. The work in the student council taught me the skill of "doing something about it." The power in the department rests alone with the professors and they are not shy about it. One specimen once told me expressis verbis "The privilege to discuss the curriculum comes with the tenure and with the tenure only." So the skill that was absorbed here was to negotiate without power but using just reason and publicity.

But the student council had another lasting impact: Theme-centered interaction (TCI). The student council represented also the students becoming high school teachers for mathematics. Their curriculum was even more lacking than the one for computer science and they took a lot of things into their own hands. They brought an understanding about how learning and group work into the mix, that you nearly never find in computer science alone. We used TCI to structure our work as a council and to hold our introductions for new students.

Beyond that, the work in the student council has brought me into contact with people who became very close friends and who, through feedback and suggestions, worked hard on my education as well.

As already mentioned in a different blog post, I am a pen&paper RPG player. I started playing in 1986. Even today, I occasionally play with some of those people in my initial round. I consider the RPG to be one of the cornerstones of my education. It is hard to overestimate the impact those 34 years of playing had on me. There are so many aspects:

  • Every campaign was a lesson in project management.
  • By assuming different roles I developed more empathy (which was still in rather low supply on my side in 1986). 
  • Combat situations honed tactical skills.
  • But you also learned to avoid combats as your character progressed. The figure becomes dearer and more valuable with the hours you spent with it. And you learn that even the easiest fight carries risks.
  • You could probably write a complete series on group dynamics upon the experiences.
I am pretty sure I overlooked some aspects when writing this text. Though I would not say that any RPG round provides valuable education, the chances are high. I would rate the chance higher than with 90+% of all classroom sessions I have sat through. It will depend heavily on the setup of the group. This lead again to the element of chance: I had an excellent group.

The impetus for this post comes from a discussion with a friend. In totally unrelated chat he mentioned that my passion for strategy computer games and military science fiction has given me a certain advantage. Thinking about it, I would add those two aspects to the "important" list of my education though they do not reach the impact of RPG and my work in the student council.

Strategy computer games for me do not include the so-called "real-time strategy" (RTS) genre. Those games are (at best from my point of view) tactical. While they also may teach skills, I do not consider those important for me. Strategic games include e.g. the handling conflict of aims and long term planning. Military science fiction also teaches nearly the same skills but by a completely different approach.

Overall I can summarize that formal education is a lot less important for me than other aspects. This reflected by the fact that in all my life I never had to show my university diploma. Though the fact that I hold that degree has been useful by itself,  it is not on my top 5 list. This also has the importance that I assign to formal degrees held (or especially not held) by other people.

As mentioned several times in this post, the influence of random chance is scary. There are so many occasions in life where my education and therefore my career could have gone off the rails. I need this awareness to teach me humility, a lesson I find very hard. It is too easy to attribute success to one's skills and hard work. I need to remind me constantly about the luck I had and the people that have helped me to become the person I am today.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Day 52: The blessed curse of Amazon

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 51 or Day 53.

I've got an itchy trigger finger. That's good when playing shooter games, but bad for my shopping habits. I'm the man who buys faster than his shadow.

It is too easy for me to order things at Amazon. They know my address, they know how to separate me from my money in the most painless way. I'm so trained to shop at Amazon that I rarely look at other sites.

Whenever I someone throws me link to another shop I tend to copy the description and paste it into the Amazon search mask. If it is something impossible to get otherwise, I usually need five to ten minutes to get the cart or even the payment process working with uMatrix on.

Sometimes I think that is not that Amazon is making things so easy but they must have secret agents making other stores hard to use. Sometimes I just need to notice the shop software and feel myself not welcome.

OK, sometimes I get pass that stage and want to buy. Suddenly the shop turns nosy. It keeps asking and asking me questions and it feels like


And I just want to say:


Sometimes it really feels like the payment process was added as an afterthought and the coder really wanted to build the next Instagram. So whenever I try to spend less time on Amazon, something like this happens and I crawl back like a repentant sinner.

It feels like Amazon understands me. Unless I just bought a washing machine and Amazon goes like: "Hey, you just bought a washing machine, how about these two dozen models."

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Day 50: Half way

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 49 or Day 51.

Today marks half the way in The 100 Days Offensive. Time to summarize and review things.

The time passed much quicker than anticipated. Luckily I number the blog posts otherwise I would have missed the half-time.

With the start of the offensive I have set myself some goals. I would give me a fair-to-middling rating on those:
  • In terms of virtual rounds of Kaffeeklatsch, I managed exactly one event. I have to become better here and my upcoming birthday should provide an opportunity to start over.
     
  • The second goal I gave me was to create one blog post a day. It is hard to crank out one blog post per day. That is not due to the post itself but because of the energy drain and time sinks beside the blog. I had to cheat on a few days and I missed one post, but made up for it with two posts the next days. Nevertheless I would give an OK here.
     
  • I announced to use every mean and method I have at hands to stay connected to friends and family. There are some successes here. We have set up a weekly round of Midgard (a classic Pen&Paper RPG) and managed to hold six sessions. I created a Discord server and managed to lure some friends in. There is still nothing to be found in the board-game-over-ip section, but plans are in the making. Concerning this target I also have to mention that I am still short one or more guest posts.
     
  • Cooking and baking have been heavily intensified, though the documentation is lacking. I acquired a baking coach on the way and she is challenging me (which is good). No matter what else will happen, Corona has already improved my buns a lot: 
    Luckily the oven survived some mishap on the way. Also I would consider me falling short on the amount of documentation (photos, recipes) I promised.
       
  • I have set me an extra quest: to do more for my health. In this regard I had the sub-targets:

    1) Conduct the exercises for my joints - I'm lacking here and even more on the documentation.

    2) Spend enough time on the Stationary Bicycle for cardiac training - Here I succeeded and I managed to reach my "calories burned"-goal on 49 of 50 days.

    3) Keep an eye on my weight - I blew it here and gained 11 pounds since the start of the offensive. Though the exercise was there, the intake of sweets was too high and I need to drastically reduce that one.

    As this is the most critical of my stated goals, halfway OK does not cut it here. Especially the last item requires improvement.
One reported effect of Corona according to the press is the increase in Netflix usage and a boom for the Computer Game industry. Though I manage to view one series and played through one game, my media usage compared to before the pandemic has fallen (and this even though I have Disney+ now).

In total I'm not unhappy with what I achieved, but there is room for improvement. So forward, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

Day 51: Captain's Chair

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 50 or Day 52.

I want to spend more time in space, so I need a proper command center.


Friday, May 8, 2020

Day 49: Playing with Zabbix

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 48 or Day 50.

Today QNAP surprised me with an email that they would love to provide me with a ready-to-run Zabbix Image for a VM on my storage. I did not decline...

I couldn't resist and played a bit with it. Zabbix is not the most intuitive monitoring solution for me. I threw it against the wall in frustration a few years ago, but now I am older and wiser. And the tutorials have become better as well.

Currently I'm most interested how my three ISPs are performing (Cable, DSL & LTE) so I set up a bit of monitoring.


I agree that it is not fair to plot a LTE connection vs. Cable and DSL, but it gives me quick overview. Next up is the integration of my Check Point Firewall into the Zabbix. Before you know it, I will be probably monitoring thousands of parameters. So perhaps the next step should be to make sure I have a working backup.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Day 48: IT-Security & Corona

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 47 or Day 49,

I was asked about the impact of Corona on the IT-Security. This is what I came up with.

Remark: As someone said when beta-reading this text, a lot of the risks mentioned are not really Corona-related. But Corona makes those risks visible or sometimes just more obvious.

Cultural challenges

  • The bond between company & employee is weakened
    • Easier to attack through social engineering, colleagues are also just voices on the phone
    • Lacking skills for the remote management of people
    • People-poaching becomes easier
  • Fear for the personal future
    • Easier to seduce people to "rogue activities"
    • Hoarding of digital assets (customer data, source code)
  • The separation between job and private life is dissolved further
    • Use of company assets for illegal purposes (copyright violations, etc.)
    • Use of private software on company systems
    • Use of company software on private systems
    • The feeling of "unobservability"

Technical challenges

  • The usage of private resources (hardware, internet, space)
    • Personal components are being used as part of the workflow or as storage
    • Resources are shared with third parties unknown to the company
    • The home IT becomes a new shadow IT
  • Critical Infrastructure
    • Client-2-Site VPNs become part of the critical infrastructure while remaining vulnerable to denial-of-service attacks
    • The dependency on the IT security of third party tools and services (Teams, WebEx, Zoom, DropBox) rises astronomically
  • Security hardships
    • A lot of traffic bypasses corporate and IT-security infrastructure
    • Anomalies are the new normal, all thresholds for safe & secure behaviour have been invalidated
    • Plans for crisis management or disaster recover will probably not work in the current environment or will take much longer
    • Company devices have never been designed to survive in an hostile environment, they rely on a sheltered network and are not based on a zero trust concept

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Day 47: Review "Microsoft Teams" (Software)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 46 or Day 48.

This one is from love-and-hate-department. With the current situation, work could be really a lot more difficult without a software like Microsoft Teams. On the other side, the idiosyncrasies can really drive me mad.



On the plus side, it allows easy communication cross-platform (Windows, MacOS, Linux, IOS, Android) even in large teams. The ability to integrate a lot of apps through several different projects and teams can really help you keep an overview on a lot of activities.... or distract you with a seemingly endless list of conversations to follow. Unluckily the side upon you will end on really depends how well your co-users have been trained in the use of Teams. A lot of companies have rated it self-explaining and therefor omitted a lot of the necessary basic course. In that case Teams may end up being something like a document dumpster.

The biggest weakness is the incomplete multi-tenancy support. Though a single user can be part of multiple tenants, his role in all but one is limit to that of a guest. That severely restricts the use if  e.g. you cannot attach documents to a discussion. But even worse, you are always only active within a single tenant. You have either to manually switch between the tenants or (like me) open the second tenant as web app in the private mode of the Edge Browser. To confuse you even more, some discussions remain active no matter which tenant you're in. I've experienced this a lot with chats associated with meetings. Another thing I also dislike is that you have to set your status within each tenant separately. I haven't found an option to automatically keep it in all tenants the same.

Also the integration into the mobile phone is incomplete. E.g. I haven't found an option to silence or reject incoming calls automatically when you're in a phone conference with Teams on the PC.

Video conferences are not as good as in Zoom but acceptable. The quality varies with the overall load on the Teams platform. As a friend uses to say: "If it had been designed as a cloud service, it would scale much better." The total or near-total outages have been rare, but with the onset of the Corona pandemic, a service level degradation was felt.

The chat is not perfect but OK. My biggest problem is that I tend to send my message when I'm trying to add a line in the middle of the text. You can edit your messages afterwards or delete it. But most users have never been introduced to that option.

In total I'm torn on this one. Team surely helps at a time where the digital communication rules and it will beat any combination of phone, email and file server even on a bad day. But the bad days are there too and (that is really frustrating) they are mostly unnecessary. Teams is sometimes it's own nemesis by screwing up at a central point like multi-tenancy.




Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Day 46: Spanish Tortilla

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 45 or Day 47.

One benefit of the home office is the chance to cook more than usual...

So here is a result:


Monday, May 4, 2020

Day 45: Nothing new in the home office

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 44 or Day 46.

By now I am in the home office for seven weeks now. My wife started two weeks later.

My wife was asked by a coworker: "How is the home office working out for you?"

She answered: "Fairly OK, but the new colleague is noisy and leaves a mess in the kitchen."

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Day 44: Review "The Murderbot Diaries" (Book Series)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 43 or Day 45.

The first lines of "All Systems Red" caught my attention: "I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then i realized, I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company channels." I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Changing the perspective by using an unusual main character is not really a novel approach for an author. But Martha Wells nails it with this series that nevertheless surprises you. A soap opera addicted killing machine really fits the trope of being somewhat special.

Winning the Hugo and the Nebula Award is a just reward for an action pack Science Fiction comedy that does not shy away from difficult topics. And the author manages all that with surprising small footprint. All four books are easily read on a single evening (perhaps cutting some corners with your sleep requirements is required).

In a time where the problems of autonomous killing machines are on the table of international politics, the book adds another angle. It is impossible to predict what an artificial intelligence really wants once it reaches self-awareness. Perhaps we can really hope our endless supply of trivial media keeps it too busy from becoming the dominant species.

And do you want to know what the best thing is? The next (fifth) installment (Network Effect) of this series is due Tuesday.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Day 43: Review "Chimera Squad" (Computer Game)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 42 or Day 44.

As I already pointed out, I am an armchair strategist. My favorites are turn based games as my life is already hectic enough. The surprising appearance of "Chimera Squad" on the gaming market came just at the right time.

Chimera Squad is an offspring of the popular XCOM series.  I started playing that series in the mid-90s with UFO: Enemy Unknown. The success of that game has started a franchise that is now running for more than 25 years and it shows no signs of slowing down.


Chimera Squad continues the XCOM storyline. Five years after XCOM 2: War of the Chosen aliens and humans now (for a change) try to live peacefully together in a city called  "City 31" (well the name generator was offline at critical moment). The Chimera Squad acts like like a SWAT team when some unknown perpetrators try to disturb the peace with terrorism and criminal activity.

Chimera Squad is an "equal opportunity employer" and therefore you don't just have your square-jawed marines but all those aliens that gave you hell during the previous games. You can tongue pull, use psionic abilities to drive your enemies mad or barge in with a tank like creature. But you only have a limited set of potential recruits, all with their own skill set and background story. This is the first major deviation from the typical XCOM gameplay.

The second big change is your base: a warehouse. There is no building or upgrading your base. You can research and construct items, train your agents and conduct special operations, but the base is fix. This simplification is countered by giving the game more of a story. Since you're no longer saving humanity from alien slavery and just defending a city instead of a planet, this is a much needed change. The story is told in a comic like style with a few references in cut scenes within the missions. It taps a bit into the XCOM lore but is neither very deep nor complex. It serves it's purpose and is solidly done. But it wastes the opportunity of integrating the backstories of the characters into that story line (safe some remarks on the side).

The strength of this game are the novel elements: the SWAT like entrance of your team into each mission (I love them blowing up walls or coming through the windows) and the more diverse capabilities of your team members. Those really require some time getting used to, but also invite you to experiment and play with them. One mission consists of 1-3 levels where you "breach" into the room at the start of the level. Already at that point the games offers you some choice of breaching points that may require specialized equipment or unique skills.

In order to provide some change in scenery, you are required to combat different factions throughout the game. This gives you also a more diverse set of opponents. The progression through the game becomes more entertaining that way. This is somewhat counteracted by the lack of variety of missions to fulfill. Retrieve an item, escort a VIP or just clean up, there is little more than that.

But that is criticism on a high level and it is hard to fault a game for that as it was sold for just 10€. After an initial phase, the price shall rise to 20€, but I don't expect it to last long.

Even the higher price is an excellent and fair deal for what you get. Even if you don't go for a replay, it will give you easily 10-20 hours of entertainment. I applaud Firaxis for this novel approach to the series.

If you like the XCOM games in general, I recommend that you give Chimera Squad a try.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Day 42: Review "Night on Earth" (Netflix Series)

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 41 or Day 43.

Animal activity that does not involve eating my wife's plants in the garden nor destroying equipment in her shed is an easy sell on us. So we watched Night on Earth with great anticipation.

The premise of this series is using high tech cameras to show nightly activity of animals on earth that was previously unknown or unobservable.


The series is true to that promise. The images vary between good and really, really excellent. We really loved a lot of those pictures. As I own a Sony A7S especially for it's low-light capabilities, I was aware of the advancements in night-time photography. But this series takes it to whole new level. The ability to shoot landscapes in color and 4K let's forget you sometimes that the shooting took place during the night. Sometimes (e.g. in forests) they resorted to thermal imaging and even there they achieve a resolution I had not seen before.

The primary weakness of the series is it's recurring explanation that is using previously unavailable technology to shoot those scenes. Explaining this 3-4 times every episode becomes a bit dull. They could have easily inserted that by explaining some aspects of that technology to emphasize that, but they have put their bet on repetitions of nearly the same text over and over again. The female narrator is very good (I don't hold those repetitions against her as she probably did not have a say in that regard) but I have to confess that I kept expecting David Attenborough's voice to take over.

A second weakness are the story arcs told. Those are sometimes too short or end abruptly and let you expect a continuation at some later point (which does not happen).

Overall I would summarize that the technical quality is between excellent and stunning. This already makes the series sufficiently fun to watch. The storytelling does not approach the level of "Planet Earth". But if you liked that series, I can nevertheless recommend you to watch "Night on Earth". You will like it even with it's weaknesses.