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Category: Tutorials

April 7, 2019

Preparing for cyberdeath with a killswitch server

Death comes for us all, and chances are, you don't even have a legal will and testament prepared. But before you have a panic attack and start tweeting at your attorney, let me ask you this: have you thought about what will happen to your website once you bite it?

Spoiler, but: it's going to go down, fast.

Your Facebook page will happily outlive you. We've all seen the tombstone pages for our departed friends, and maybe even posted on one ourselves. "Miss you buddy." Like he's still checking Facebook in the afterlife, and not hella partying. Tragically ripped from this world beacuse of his own stupid cocaine mistakes? He'd better not be checking Facebook.

But if you really like computers, enough to read a blog that asks whether you do in the title, you've probably spent less time on social media and more time building your own site. Maybe you maintain a couple of cloud servers. They might feel autonomous, but they're just an extension of you, and once you kick the infernal bucket, they'll be following shortly after.

Sure, they'll chug along for a little while, handling that nice traffic, but as time wears on, servers decay. Log files bloat the drive; the software becomes outdated and falls prey to malicious bots. Even before that happens, your web host will shut off your account for non-payment. Credit card? Yeah, that's going to stop working. Site's down before your spouse has even chosen an urn.

Listen, if you don't actually like computers, you might not want to invest the money to pre-pay your server hosting and domain name reservation costs several years in advance. I get it — you have other things going on. Maybe your website isn't even that important to you. But otherwise, throw a few hundred dollars into your hosting account and let's move onto maintenance. Logrotate. Unattended Upgrades. Automatic WordPress updates. A cron task to restart every so often. If nothing catastrophic happens, this will keep you going for a while.

But running a VM for a couple of years after your body gets chewed up by the underside of a bus is just the groundwork. You can put that server to use — really have some fun. Or, at least create a fun experience for the people who survive you.

If you can't bring yourself to do that, even though you claim to love them, you can click back over to Reddit or wherever. Because right now we're going to build a killswitch to blast your friends and family with content from beyond the grave.

You can mitigate the spookiness of this a number of ways, but the first thing we have to think about is setting up a safe trigger system. Obviously it would be disasterous if got set off before you actually died, so you want to make sure you can't ever forget to hit the override button at regular intervals. And hitting that button should be as easy as possible.

A painless way is to have your system send you an email every week with a link. "Are you dead?" Not yet, you'll click, but time ticks on. If you miss more than 4-5 emails, you're dead. Or you're locked out of your email, but if that happens, you can hopefully still access the killswitch server itself, and hit the override manually. Always build multiple methods of override.

Once we're secure, we can start putting together our content. What you pack into this cannon is up to you — how do you want to be remembered? What do you want people to know, but couldn't tell them in life without disasterous consequences? A burn list may be top of mind, but this is also an excellent opportunity to drop that secret SoundCloud account you've been running, yet too embarrassed to tell anyone about. For added returns, stagger your posthumous communications. Even when your server finally runs out of cash, your people should still be wondering: is that it?

Just in case anyone gets mad, place some orders for gift baskets for a few years down the road. Even if you don't die, somebody's going to end up with some nice jams.

So there you have it — a kind of immortality that'll have your loved ones saying: "Ahh, I miss that fucking nerd."

Posted in: Tutorials



February 25, 2018

Backing up your novel the right way

Do you have recurring dreams about your novel getting stolen before you can finish writing it?

I do. It's not completely rational. No one's going to want to finish it themselves and publish it. No, most likely it'd be someone I've wronged over the years finally taking sweet vengeance, or an unlucky bout of ransomware.

I bring this up because I want to talk about backups today. How are you backing up your in-progress novel? Are you doing it after every writing session?

You might not even be writing a novel. I'm not judging you, but I warn you that the rest of this post, which is targeted at people who are, may be lost on you.

Without further ado, here is the rest of the post.

Easy method: just use Dropbox

If your novel lives in Dropbox, you've got a copy on your drive and automatic backups on the cloud. It even provides a kind of version control that lets you download earlier snapshots of your file.

So why wouldn't you use Dropbox?

I'm not here to put ideas in your head that using Dropbox is bad. After all, it would ruin my future chances of getting this blog sponsored by them.

But let's say there are reasons that you don't want to store your book on remote hard drives that belong to a huge corporation. I mean, it's not like they're going to steal your novel or anything, but let's say you still don't want to.

Emailing to yourself

No, see... the email server is owned by a different huge corporation! We've already established that you're paranoid about that sort of thing, because that's potentially how novels get stolen.

So stop emailing your novel to yourself, because, at best, you'll end up with a huge folder of old versions, and you also might accidentally forward it to somebody who shouldn't have it. You've definitely made mistakes of that severity before.

External hard drive & fireproof safe

If you want to keep everything so it's under your control, and ensure your data can survive a computer failure, you're probably looking at an external hard drive. Get an SSD for its data integrity, but don't worry too much about size. This is only for your most important backups. I don't doubt you have terabytes worth of data that's valuable to you, but I'm guessing the really, really important stuff, like your novel, is small.

Now, I've certainly got enough enemies at this point that I've mentally prepared for the consequences of getting firebombed. You? At any rate, if your data's important enough — and we all know how important our novels are — you're going to want it in a fireproof safe.

So get one of those, and make it a habit to copy your novel to your external drive and lock it away after every session.

The problem with this solution is you're not going to do that. It's too much hassle to connect up the drive, and feels too paranoid to lock it up every day. Hard to justify to loved ones. Plus, you'll still end up with that folder of files called Novel_NEW.doc, Novel_NEWEST.doc, etc. You'll end up hating the hard drive.

Raspberry Pi & fireproof safe

Luckily, there's a better way to back up your files. Initialize a Git repo in your novel's directory and set up a Raspberry Pi as your Git server.

Did I just lose you? I didn't say the solution was going to be non-technical, but since you've read this far into a blog that's ostensibly about computers, you might as well consider this option.

If you've never used Git: it puts your files under version control, which is like turning on Track Changes folder-wide. Every line you modify is recorded, and at the end of your session, you can review each change, packaging them all together into a "commit." Your external Git server will store a complete history of all commits and your project's current state, and you can push your latest version to it — wirelessly — in seconds. Git's designed to be used on the command line, but if you aren't comfortable with that, there are plenty of graphical Git clients like SourceTree that'll help you view and commit your daily changes.

Start by getting yourself a Raspberry Pi, either one with built-in wireless capability or an older one into which you'll plug a wireless USB dongle. Make sure the SD card that acts as the Pi's hard disk is big enough to store your most valuable files. You'll also need a power supply for the Pi and probably a small case for it. This may seem like a lot of things to buy, but the Raspberry Pi is pretty cheap, and even with those extras, you're looking at a comparable price to a quality external hard drive.

Once you've got the Raspberry Pi up and running & hooked into your wireless network, initialize a bare Git repo on it and set it as your novel's Git remote. Commit the whole project in its current state, and you're all backed up.

Then run your Raspberry Pi from inside your fireproof safe! Keep the safe open during the Pi's operation, and when you're done committing your changes, unplug the Pi and close the safe for the night. It's easy enough to work into a routine, and doesn't look paranoid enough that your loved ones will ridicule you for having mental illness.

This solution's not perfect — you have to learn how to use Git, for one — but once you start, you may find it's the best way to work on big projects. I know you'll love the feeling of having your novel backed up and fireproofed in just a few seconds.

That, and the peace of mind that no one's going to STEAL IT.

Posted in: Tutorials



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