Something’s up with my DNS provider

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I use(d) discountdomainregistry as my DNS host for and I got a weird spam from someone claiming to be them asking me to change my password, and shortly after, saw their site was either defaced, hijacked, or otherwise wonky.  It’s now down, and so are the DNS records for my two sites.

Hmmm.  Wonder what I should do?  Wait another day or two and find another host and try to migrate them?  It’s a puzzling state of affairs! Searching the web, I don’t see tons of other folks with my problem – I see a few tweets about the issue, so I know it’s not a “personal problem.”

[edit] Seems to be working fine now, though maybe under new management.  Feels a little iffy, but functional.

Revisiting my data+voice connection options


I currently use Comcast for Internet, Broadvoice for VOIP phone service, and AT&T with Edge for my mobile data (1st generation iPhone).  I decided to preorder an iPad.  The thought of another $30/month in data fees to get the iPad online while I'm on the road has me reconsidering all of my data connection options. So, I decided to get the Wifi only iPad, and figure out a better way.

I've decided to take up Verizon, Sprint and Clear on their "try it and return it if you don't like it" offers. So, for the next month I've got the Verizon MiFi, and the Sprint 3G/4G Overdrive, and for the next week, the Clear 4G home service plus 4G USB modem.
My goals are to get decent internet access from all of my devices, even when I travel (Chicago, D.C., California, sailing in the San Juans, camping), break even, or reduce my monthly bills, and have access to decent international calling rates. I'm planning on using a non-data plan SIM card in my iPhone, and use WiFi to access the internet from my data modem.
So, I'll carry these three devices around and take measurements, and report them here, along with reporting on ease of use and total billing for the various options.  I'm a bit shocked how similar it all pencils out, regardless of whose service I go through — it smells a lot like collusion in the market, but that's another topic.

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First shot at a family role-playing game

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Back when I was kid, Dungeons and Dragons appealed to me very much, but I think I was intimidated and/or too isolated to actually join a gaming group and play.  I made quite a few very detailed maps of underground caverns, but never did anything with them.

Many of my friends (hi Isaac, Andy & Martin!) enjoyed and still enjoy RPG’s, but I am still too intimidated at the level of commitment joining a serious group would entail. A couple months ago, I saw an inspirational impromptu RPG-like exchange between two anonymous users of “Omegle”. The story matter and level of violence were too intense for my taste (in terms of anything I’d do), but the lightness of touch and free flowing nature of this inspired me. “I could do that!”

So, I thought I’d try my family out on the activity.  I read up on how to run a “rules-light” RPG, and was inspired very much by the FUDGE and FATE folks, and especially by Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering.  Finally, this week, I decided to take the plunge…so I drew an outline of a map of an island on parchment paper, and just left it out overnight for the kids to see. 

Sure enough, the next morning morning they asked questions (I’d planted the seeds of doing a “do-it-ourselves game” earlier), and when I came home that night, Audra really wanted to work on the map and the game.

Here’s what we did:

Audra and I added rivers, mountains, cities, lakes (there’s a robber’s forest, too! and a mountain with a dragon inside). Then we drew another map of the main city that surrounds a castle.  Here we started adding details like a “market circle”, the castle inside, blacksmith, a magician’s hall, etc.

At this point, Colin joined, and he wanted to draw on the map at the same time.  Since Audra and I were still drawing, we let Colin add a lake outside the town, but then he got some paper from upstairs and had me draw a big circle, and then drew the entire planet.  He asked me to draw a small version of our island on the map, and then surrounded it with many, many other islands.

At this point, Audra wanted to “start playing”!  I pointed out that we _were_ kind of playing, and she said “you know, I want to do stuff!”  So we decided to choose our characters.

Audra’s character is named Arrowbird.  She’s 21 years old, 6 feet tall, is 3/4’th Elf and 1/4th human. Her human ancestors were warriors, and the elven ones were magicians. Her character is very familiar with Greek mythology, speaks Greek well, and is good with animals.  She lands on our island from overseas (Greece?) with a backpack, dagger and 500 gold pieces.

Colin’s character is named Moje.  He’s 14 years old, and a Dwarven Mage.  He’s really good at spells (for a 14-year old), especially spells that move stuff.  I’ll roll the characters specific attributes at some point, but I thought I’d hold off a bit.

Arrowbird wanted to own a horse.  I mentioned to her that horses are expensive to feed.  She asked how much — I said about 5 gold pieces a week. (I guess this was an Audra->GM meta-discussion)  She did some calculating, then asked how much a big dog would take to feed.  I tried to say almost that much, but she bargained me down, clever thing.

In parallel with that discussion, we said that Moje was dropped off in town by his parents to apprentice as a magician, also with a leather backpack, the family wand and 500 gold pieces.

Arrowbird decided her first task was to buy a big happy dog (like our neighbor’s Burmese Mountain dog, I suspect).  Moje decided he wanted a small, warrior dog.  Colin went back to drawing his globe.  Arrowbird went to the market and asked the woman how much a dog was. The woman told her 100 gold pieces. Arrowbird balked, and said “what would it take for the price to be 25?”  I rolled our dice, and the answer came out slightly negative, so I said “it would take about 75 gold pieces for the price to be another 25”.  She asked if there was anything she could do for the woman.  The woman replied that there was a wolf nearby her farm that occasionally kills dogs, and that if Arrowbird could take care of that problem, it would be worth 75 gold to her.

At this point, it was time to go to bed, but Audra’s wheels were churning.  By the time she was climbing in to bed, she was going to attempt to tame the wolf to get a pet for free and earn 75 gold.  I told her “that’s interesting, but don’t count on that working — only the dice will tell for sure!”  She said “okaaay dad…but I want you playing tomorrow — that way it’s not just dice I’m working with…”

Oh boy, I think we’ve created a monster (or four).  All of this was about 2 hours from start to finish.

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Three orders of magnitude!

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When I travel by airplane, I prefer to start my trip on foot, rather than car. There’s an air of wonder about traveling when you step from your front porch, belongings in hand, headed for a destination thousands of miles away. When you do it by car, invariably encountering traffic, the whole affair feels like an inefficient commute. My trips usually involve walking just over a mile to the light-rail, taking the light rail about 10 miles to the airport, then getting on the plane.  As I was sitting on the train today, it occurred to me that the first leg of my trip is at a velocity of about 3 miles per hour (if I’m taking it leisurely). Then, on the train, it’s about 40 miles per hour, and finally, on the airplane, it’s over 600 miles per hour. If I took a whole trip to the Coast on foot (as Louis and Clarke did), it would take months. Who needs jetpacks?

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Wonderful math educational materials

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Speaking of crypto treasure-hunts and math circles…I just found these educational materials from the NSA. There are dozens of lesson plans for topics ranging from probability to geometry. They’re very complete, including clear instructions for the teacher (or parent, or math circle leader for that matter), and nice activities to print out for the students.

Between this, Wolfram’s recent re-dedication to K-12 education, and KenKen, this has been a fruitful month for me in the math education quest.
More broadly, I’ve found the matheducation reddit page to be a very useful place to discover stuff like this.

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Crypto-treasure hunt birthday party: a great success!

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I was surprised to hear Audra wanted “codebreaking” to be the theme of her party this year. Maybe she missed math circle, or maybe there’s cryptography in the air, maybe she knew it would bring Dad even more into the party preparation than normal (last year’s Pirate Party was also

a hoot to design).

Codebreaking is pretty abstract, so I knew we’d need something to drive the activity.  Treasure hunts are always fun (for parents and kids), so that seemed a natural combination. Over the days before the party, I thought of the collection of codes and activities we could put together. I knew it would be great to send kids home with something to remember the party by, so I designed a “secret agent ID badge”, and a “Top Secret Code Breakers Manual”. [pdf link]
Sally Browning, one of my friends and colleagues at Galois, had prepared a codebreaking tutorial for some visiting middle-schoolers, and as part of that, she prepared a “scytale” (sounds like s + “Italy”) activity – a bunch of dowels with different diameters, with ribbons to wrap around.  Heidi had found a simple substitution cypher for the invitation (some of our great attendees replied in code — I love it!)  And from there, I pretty much had a template for the activity.
The party started at 1:00. I started working on the final treasure hunt at 8 AM that morning. I finished just in time (!). All told, I think I spent 8 hours working on the treasure hunt activities. As often as possible, I tried to make the activities parallelizable among the 10 guests…this worked mostly, and it was definitely obvious when there was a one-person bottleneck to an activity.
Heidi and I agreed that we’d try to keep the tenor of help provided along the lines of “math circle”, which is pretty much hands-off, but perhaps with a few Socratic questions thrown in to accelerate things if needed.
Here’s the sequence of the treasure hunt:
Audra took a photo of each guest as they arrived.

  • We put out puzzles and thinking-activities from our “games and puzzles drawer out for people to play with as the party gathered. We also left out a set of the “code books”.
  • When everyone assembled, we said “instead of a cake, all we have here is this empty-feeling box”.  Inside the box were two ribbons with letters on them. The kids figured out that dowels would be needed, and thought of wrapping the ribbons around chair legs or other cylinders around the house…not noticing the pile of 10 dowels against a wall.  Eventually, the dowels were discovered, and one ribbon got decoded on the first try — what are the odds?  It took a lot more work to decode the second ribbon. Between the two ribbons, the message was “I have hidden your stuff in a secret location. You will find help where les oeufs are produced.” The two French dictionaries were sitting next to where the empty box started ended up helping out.  “The Chicken coop!” and they were off.
  • Inside the coop was a plastic egg with two smaller eggs nested. In that was a tiny USB thumb drive. I created a bunch of directories (A-Z) and a “readme.txt”.  The file said “Look in directory “D” for the next clue”. Inside directory D were another set of directories A-Z, and a readme.txt that said “What “are” you looking for”.  Inside directory “R” was another readme.txt: “what are “you” looking for, again?”.  Inside directory “U” were more directories, and a readme.txt: “mmmmmmmmmmm…I love cake.” Finally, inside directory “M” was a file that said “you’ve found the right place.”
  • The innermost directory (note the path was “D/R/U/M”) had a text file with morse code spelling out “The next clue is hidden inside an instrument you hit with your hands.” as well as an .mp3 file with morse code spelling out “DRUM”. I used this web site to generate the two files. The cryptographers broke into two groups, one group tried to decode the audio, the other asked me to print out the morse code for them to decode.  Even though I slowed the morse code audio way down, that team finally switched to decoding the text as well. Nobody noticed the path spelled out DRUM. Interesting!
  • Inside the drum was an envelope with a bunch of slips of paper in the original transposition code (I wrote a python program to generate this… see the bottom of this post). I wanted to allow this task to be parallelized, so I wanted to chop up the message into bits, and then added numbers so they’d know which order they went in. The slips decoded to the text “ONE LOOK”, “TWO UNDER”, “THREE THE THING”, “FOUR THAT HANGS”, “FIVE ON ROPE”, “SIX FROM A”, “SEVEN TREE AND”, “EIGHT CHILDREN”, “NINE PLAY ON”, “TEN FOR FUN”.  They quite quickly decoded the individual strips, but had a dickens of a time figuring out the ordering of the slips. They were thinking the numbers were another level of code, or were part of the message, or formed a more complex pattern (like 2 4 6 8 …).  Finally, they got them all on the floor at once, and with a little Socratic questioning help, they figured it out. “The Swing!”
  • Under the swing was an envelope with what caused the funniest moment of the party (for me, anyway). I wrote “Hermione shows up with fancy hair and a dress.” With no time at all, the rushed into the house, grabbed the single volume (book four) of the Harry Potter series, and took about 30 seconds to find the right chapter. On that page was another slip of paper, this time with another book title, and a math problem (110 * 3 – 10).  And so on for eight books. The last slip of paper was in an art book, on the page about Miro. They discarded the book before noticing the slip of paper said “look behind a painting that looks like this one.” They dug it back out, found the page, and behind the painting was another envelope, holding a paper saying “four legs eats here”.

“Cat bowl!” Under the cat bowl were two more scytale ribbons “Oh, no, not more?!?!”.  They were getting hungry for cake.  The scytale ribbons had a little-bit-too obscure clue (I think I was getting tired at this point in the puzzle-making process): Ribbon one: “Your next clue is hidden inside a musical instrument on the West wall of the house” and “If you go to Hawaii you will hear my strings”. It took way too long to find the Ukelele on the West wall of the house. I was busy upstairs laminating the ID cards, but heard the excitement of finding a slip of paper with the URL Heidi says she had to help them with the typing – theirs was too error-prone to get it right.

  • They recognized bits of the car, and my car-key’s bike-chain keyring. They finally found the cake in the trunk…but no goodie bags!  Fortunately, the icing had morse code (“Not again!”) that said “look under the bed” which is where they found their goodie bags.

Heidi heard more than one guest say “this is the best birthday party ever!” which blew me away, but totally reinforced the theme of a book I’ve been reading (

A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Ralph Koster), which is that real “Fun” comes from the excitement of actually learning something new.

All told, it took 2.5 hours to solve the clues, and they just got to the cake as parents arrived to pick them up. It was an exhausting, but very rewarding, party.
As an aside, here’s the shell script I used to create the maze-on-thumbdrive (watch out – it’s slow, and the result takes up a lot of space!):
export digits=”A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z”
for i  in $digits; do
mkdir $i
cd $i
cp /tmp/readme.txt .
        for j in $digits; do
                mkdir $j
cd $j
cp /tmp/readme.txt .
        for k in $digits; do
mkdir $k
cd $k
cp /tmp/readme.txt .
        for l in $digits; do
mkdir $l
cd $l
cp /tmp/readme.txt .
cd ..
cd ..
cd ..
cd ..

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