Life in lockdown

The Last Day of 2020

As I type this, 2020 is approximately 11 hours from finishing (at least in my part of the world). My upstairs air conditioner decided to fail in the last few days of the year and guess what? It’s not under warranty. Effe you 2020! Ugh.

Here is hoping for a brighter 2021; I mean it’s always darkest before the dawn, right!?!


The “Christmas Star”

<from NASA>Skywatchers are in for an end-of-year treat. What has become known popularly as the “Christmas Star” is an especially vibrant planetary conjunction easily visible in the evening sky over the next two weeks as the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn come together, culminating on the night of Dec. 21.</NASA>

Full story

This photo was taken with my Canon 50D using a 300mm lens. I’m not super knowledgeable on all things Camera. The full RAW image is huge, this is a small export of it taken from my front porch in Cypress, Texas.

Life in lockdown

Messing Around with Digital Cameras

I setup a photo studio in my office. I have a green screen, Cameron’s recording lights and the Cannon 50d on a tripod tethered to my computer. It’s a complex setup. I’m using FOSS called entangle (to capture) and the Gimp with Darkroom plug-in to open the Canon RAW image files. I’m learning about f-stop and ISO speed. It’s all complex and I’m out of my depth a bit but it’s fun. It’s been a while since I’ve messed around with Adobe Photoshop. I’m trying to relearn a skill on Gimp and it’s a bit different. I’ll get the hang of it sooner or later.

With better lighting
future music star?
I was still, she moved fast
what a ham.

Reporting Network Threats with Graylog

In an average 5 min time-span my network firewall is scanned about 25-50 times (+/-). It is scanned from all over the world including Morocco, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Moscow, Beijing and London (to name a few). I’m sure sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated hackers are using VPN’s or TOR to show they are in another location or to hide their tracks. What are they trying to accomplish? Well, basically, they are checking if any doors are unlocked to try and get access or information. In computer network security this means network services are running either unlocked, unprotected or protected with weak or known passwords. Most folks would be unaware in such a circumstance to poor network security until they get hacked. Some folks purposely leave hosts exposed with services to capture details on hacker methods (those are called honeypots). I noticed that I have a lot of port scanning of 1433 (MS Sql Server), 21 (FTP), 22 (SSH) and 23 (Telnet) among many others. If those ports are listened to by a service on my home network that is exposed to the general internet then these scans will pick that up and essentially report back that I have a running service. Additionally, they could be trying known generic passwords or any security vulnerabilities.

This report was generated with live syslog data from my wifi router which is being ingested by Graylog and processing done on the router log messages to lookup any known threats. These threat and Geo Location lookups are built-in features of Graylog.

More detail on how to set this up on your own Graylog instance can be found at and

I found a useful blog that identified items to check when setting this up.

  1. Check your processing order, your order is wrong, if you use pipeline rules. Please move your Message Filter chain before Pipeline Processor.
  2. Check if your geoip lookup table works. Put a internet ip address to section Test Lookup in field Key, and it should return GEO information.
  3. If not, check your data adaptor if you use correct Database type for your downloaded file. I use GeoLite2-City.mmdb and Database type: City Database. If you use only Country database, change correct type.
  4. Best is to put MaxDB databases to /etc/graylog/server directory, check if graylog service can read file.
  5. You need extracted field with ip addresss, for example src_ip with only ip adresses to use in lookup table. I couldn’t see any ip field in your fields screenshot. So create extractor or pipeline rule for ip field extraction first.
  6. You can use geo ip lookup table in several parts: Extractor, Converter, Decorator or Pipeline Rule.
  7. There is no special geoip map icon in field.
  8. If you want to create World Map widget, create widget from field src_ip_geo_location (or Show top values) and change Visualization type to World Map.
  9. If you use Selinux (CentOS, RHEL) try to disable to check, if it’s not blocking access to geoip db file.

The full thread is available here


Building your own Alexa skill using AWS Lambda and Python (Part 1)

While I resisted the pull of the ‘smart speaker’ for a little while, I have to admit having Amazon Music and an Echo has been one of the most enjoyable things I’ve bought for myself over the past couple of years. Maybe it’s my age, but voice activation still seems very cool to me, but I’m middle aged, quite often tired and like most adults, I have a lot of dull stuff to do in my life. ‘Aha…… Katie, why not automate away that toil……’

So yes, that’s why I thought it would be fun (and help me reawaken some tech skills) to build my own app. Of course, their is info out there already on this, but I found a lot of it stopped a bit short, or jumped right into the code writing. So here’s my write up of the first part of it which is the basic interaction between you and Alexa. After that I’ll do write ups of how to use lambda a bit more to actually have functionality.

You will need:

  • A developer account for the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK)/ Alexa Developer Console.
  • An AWS account: . You can get an account with a free tier to use AWS lambda assuming you don’t exceed 1 million requests a month. (You’ll need to provide a payment method to get the account)
  • Some basic python coding skills
  • A brilliant idea!

Alexa Developer Console

This is where you create the voice interaction model. It’s a web based IDE- nothing to download, and it has it’s own test environment. I used the following tutorial, but I found it simpler to write up my own notes.

Here’s my translation of the Alexa terms:

  1. A name for your skill ie. ” Alexa, open <insert cool name here>”- that’s the invocation name. I recommend making it simple as you may forget it….. I did, more than once.
  2. Intents could be translated as ‘functions’ of the app. With utterances being the phrases you may say, to initiate those ‘functions’.
  3. Within the utterances, you can set variables- which translates as ‘slots’. You can set the available value of the slot.
  4. Set your endpoint- ie. link it to the code in AWS Lamda


Invocation: Bin check

Intents: Check_next

Utterance: When is the next {bin_type} collection

Intent Slots: bin_type

Slot Type: waste_type with user utterances: garden waste; rubbish etc.

Once you have it all set up you’ll need to ‘build model’.

But really, that won’t do anything on it’s own. That’s where lambda comes in.

To get ready for the next bit I recommend going to the Endpoint menu to show your ‘Skill ID’ which you’ll need for later:

AWS Lambda:

For this I assume you’ve set up an AWS account and are on the Lambda service.

Firstly, You’re going to need to create a new function.

Choose a name (I went for ‘Bins’), and choose the language in which you’ll write the function. I went for Python and left the default IAM selection.

Now press ‘Create function’.

Once created you’ll see the IDE with the following at the top. This is how you link it to the ASK work you did earlier. At the following :

Click “Add trigger”. You want to choose “Alexa Skills Kit”

The following should appear and you can add the Skill ID I highlighted earlier. Click Add.

You now want to do the reverse. At the top right of the functions screen you should see the following. Copy this ready to link it back.

Right. Now back to the ASK console. Back to the Endpoints section and copy and past your function ID in. Notice you have regional options if perhaps in your Alexa skill, a reference to pants might warrant a different response if your end user is in the UK or the US………

Save the end points and …. ta da……. you’ve linked your alexa skill to a function! Sure it doesn’t do anything yet….. but hey. That’s part 2…..

Hardware Software

Debugging Poor Internet Service at Home

From March 2020 to the present I have worked from home; I am fortunate that my company allows me such freedom. I am interested in returning to the office next year but I enjoy knowing that I can work from home fairly efficiently and that my company invested in their infrastructure to facilitate a mass migration from the office to almost entire WFH overnight. My home Internet access, powered by Comcast Xfinity, and my personal computer needed upgrades though to reach the level of performance I required to do my job (more on my desktop computer in a future post). Prior to Covid-19, my home network was not slouch, but I honestly didn’t use it except nights and weekends. Middling performance was sort-of ok — I mean it wasn’t but I’m not going to call Comcast to complain if my Internet drops occasionally. Raw network speed is important but stability is the most important factor. If I’m on a call with my supervisor (or a team meeting), I don’t want the Zoom call to hang or drop. This adds a level of stress on me as my home Internet connection is now a requirement for not only me working from home but also my daughter completing her school-work.

Let me first define what a poor Internet connection looks and feels like. As I mentioned, I have a Comcast Xfinity Cable Internet connection; specifically I have the Performance Plus package which is 600 Mb down and 20 Mb up (notice the little b in that statement). Megabits stands for a million bits (a one or a zero) and it’s a common trick that network service providers play. A byte is 8 bits, bytes are what file sizes are measured in. The large Megabit number feels impressive but btyes are a better measure of file transfer speed and usage. Honestly though, it doesn’t matter as long as you know what you need and most importantly you don’t overpay for bandwidth you don’t know or vice versa. Comcast offers a Gigabit internet connection for a bit more money each month; I’m not going to bite at that until I can prove that my issues/limitations are caused by the bandwidth cap and not some other weak link in the chain (you are only as fast as the slowest link in the proverbial network chain).

Remember that scene in “The Matrix” where Neo swallows the blue pill? You may ask, which Matrix movie which I would respond “There is only one Matrix movie”, but I digress…. You know that sound that is made when Neo swallows the pill, it is a very distinct sound of stuttering audio. That is the sound that Zoom (or other video conferencing apps) make audio or video lags. This sound kills a meeting and impacts your ability to WFH. A more nefarious version of this issue is when the Audio/Video of a Zoom call is coming in fine for you since the download speed is typically much higher bandwidth but your meeting recipients see a stuttering mess when it comes to your audio/video feed. That stuttering audio sound should be familiar to many as it’s the result of poor Internet connection. There can be many reasons for this sound and we’ll go through them one by one to triage the problem.

Step 1: Call Comcast and Complain

If you are a technical person and you know a bit about computers and networking, this is going to be the hardest step. Calling the 800 number can be a frustrating experience for technical-minded individuals. Please remember to be courteous and kind to those who answer the phone. They must run thru their approved script of troubleshooting activities and mostly they speak to non-technically minded individuals — so cut them some slack! Your conversation will always start with, “Let’s reboot your cable modem to see if that fixes the issue”. I’m sure in many cases that would do the trick, but we (my cultured friends) are technically minded and we’ve already done that step. They will send a signal to your cable modem to assess connectivity and reboot as needed. I have not seen this script but it seems a required step before they move on to other steps. Every call or conversation starts with, “can we reboot your cable modem Mr./Mrs <insert your name>?” or the familiar question of “Is your computer directly connected to the cable modem?”. If you own your own WiFi router, Comcast doesn’t want to spend tech time debugging issues with your hardware. They will suggest you connect directly to the cable modem to cut out the middle-man. You should humor them as ultimately you want to show the problem of poor internet performance is repeatable when you are directly connected to the cable modem and therefore the root cause of the problem isn’t your WiFi router. As you progress through the scripted questions, where you want to end up is “We will schedule a technician to visit your residence.”

Step 1a: Repeat calls or Power issues

Don’t laugh. I literally had to have repeat calls with Comcast to investigate the issue. They would attempt to “flash” my modem or “send a signal” to my modem to correct the problem. I have no idea what they did in these situations but it generally meant you had to end the call and monitor performance for a few days and call back if there was a repeat. On one call I got a tech who asked me if I had a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) connected to my Cable Modem and my WiFi router. I replied no which was the honest truth; I’d always had been thinking of getting one but I hadn’t yet. The tech explained that power fluctuations can result in cable modem issues and recommend I install a UPS. I did as was told and purchased an APC Back-UPS NS 1250 (used) from Goodwill for like $30 USD. The batteries were of course spent on the unit I received so I purchased new batteries online for approx $45 USD. The unit has a nice LCD display and it “cleans” the power signal to your sensitive electronics as well as providing a short term battery backup in case of power issues. This did not resolve my issue and I had to call back after the UPS was installed and the issue reoccurred. Keep pushing for a tech to visit your house…

Step 2: Tech Visit – Part 1

Comcast techs are in a separate division from the customer support team and therefore can only see details that are documented in problem tickets or cases. It’s important to have the customer support representative and/or the Comcast technician to document the issue thoroughly in the ticket for improved hand off between teams. The first Comcast tech arrived in the early Summer and after some quick checks in my backyard, he diagnosed that my cable line from my access point on my house to the demarcation point in my back yard had to be redone. I suppose my dogs had dug a portion of the cable up and compromised the copper wire and shielding. He reran the cable in less than an hour but the cable was laying on top of the grass in the backyard. He explained that another person would contact me in a few days to come and dig a trench for the cable and shield it in protective PVC. This was hot, sweaty work in the middle of Summer and I’m thankful for their service. Now that the wire was safely in the ground, I was sure this would resolve my poor Internet performance issues. It did not… I mean I’m sure it resolved some issues but it didn’t resolve “the” issue.


Installing Graylog 3 in a TrueNAS 12.0 Jail (FreeBSD)

Graylog is an enterprise log aggregation and management framework similar to Splunk. Graylog, the company, is based in Houston, Texas (yay!) and boasts over 40k installations. What am I trying to accomplish by using Graylog at home? Well, my initial requirement is to collect logs from my network routers and incorporate that into my existing network monitoring using InfluxDB and Grafana. I’m a client of Comcast Xfinity and my network performance has really been poor in mid to late 2020. After multiple calls to Comcast and several tech visits, I’ve setup my own monitoring to “show” Comcast that I’m not getting the bandwidth they are billing me for. Log retention is low on my routers and cable modem (data rolls off quickly), a goal of this project is to retain at least 30-90 days of log messages from all network devices.

While I didn’t find this other post until after I wrote my post; I will cross link to this other post on essentially the same thing 😉

In TrueNAS Core 12.0, use the add Jail wizard

Step 1: Create the Graylog Jail

I’ll setup Graylog in a TrueNAS Core 12.0 Jail which will be running FreeBSD 12.2 release. The jail configuration isolates the software and configuration from other applications running on TrueNAS and it provides a stable environment with a large storage pool for log retention. In the Jails menu on TrueNAS Core 12.0, select the add button and the wizard will prompt you for input to create the Jail. Name your jail graylog and select the FreeBSD software release, then hit Next. I chose DHCP for my Networking configuration which will allow me easy SSH access to the “host”. Select Next and then select Submit to create the Jail. This tutorial will assume you have an understanding of basic Unix and SSH commands. After the wizard completes, you will want to click on the greater-than symbol in the graylog jail row in TrueNAS to show the jail details including the IP address. In this instance my graylog jail is (take note!). In my network router I configured DHCP to give the same IP4 address to the MAC address for the graylog jail and to resolve the DNS hostname of graylog (so I don’t need to remember the IP4 address)

Test that the jail is up by pinging the “host”

rich@eragon:~$ ping graylog
PING ( 56(84) bytes of data.
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=0.691 ms
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=2 ttl=64 time=0.619 ms
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=3 ttl=64 time=0.684 ms
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=4 ttl=64 time=0.752 ms
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=5 ttl=64 time=0.537 ms
--- ping statistics ---
5 packets transmitted, 5 received, 0% packet loss, time 4006ms
rtt min/avg/max/mdev = 0.537/0.656/0.752/0.073 ms

Step 2: Setup SSH access and a local user

You will need to ssh into your TrueNAS box and use the iocage or the jexec command to remote into the jail on your first access. This is because you won’t have a local user account yet and the SSH daemon isn’t running. SSH into your TrueNAS (mine is named kidney) and type the JLS command to see the JID number of your jail. This will change with every restart so don’t write it down or memorize it. Use the jexec command to remote in.

kidney% jls
   JID  IP Address      Hostname                      Path
    12                  graylog                       /mnt/PavPool/iocage/jails/graylog/root
kidney% sudo jexec 12 /bin/tcsh 

We trust you have received the usual lecture from the local System
Administrator. It usually boils down to these three things:

    #1) Respect the privacy of others.
    #2) Think before you type.
    #3) With great power comes great responsibility.

root@graylog:/ # 

You will notice that you are now in a shell (a tcsh shell if you followed my above instructions) in the jail. Please note bash is not installed yet. You will be logged in as root. Update the packages and install bash first; you will need bash when you create your local user. You will also install the sudo package and configure it. sudo allows non-root users to run privileged commands.

root@graylog:/ # pkg update
Updating FreeBSD repository catalogue...
FreeBSD repository is up to date.
All repositories are up to date.
root@graylog:/ # pkg install bash sudo

Now you need to configure sudo by executing the visudo command. This command will edit the sudoers file to tell the system that your local account is allowed to run priveliged commands. Scroll down in the vi window until you see User Privilege

## User privilege specification
root ALL=(ALL) ALL

You should add a new row by putting cursor under the row with root like above and hitting the i key to insert. Type your user row as follows:

rich ALL=(ALL) ALL

Substitute username rich for whatever your username is. You may wonder that you haven’t created the user yet and that is ok! We will create the user next. Type SHIFT ZZ (that is hold the shift key and then type Z twice) to save the file.

Then, add your local user to enable easy logins as something other than root (not good to remote into things as root). In this example my local login name is rich with unix id of 1000 on all my boxes including TrueNAS <<< this is important. Type adduser to create the rich user with uid of 1000.

root@graylog:/ # adduser
Username: rich_
Full name: Rich P
Uid (Leave empty for default): 1000
Login group [rich_]: 
Login group is rich_. Invite rich_ into other groups? []: 
Login class [default]: 
Shell (sh csh tcsh bash rbash git-shell nologin) [sh]: bash
Home directory [/home/rich_]: 
Home directory permissions (Leave empty for default): 
Use password-based authentication? [yes]: 
Use an empty password? (yes/no) [no]: 
Use a random password? (yes/no) [no]: 
Enter password: 

Next, edit the /etc/rc.conf file and add this line to the end of the file


Next, start the sshd service to test that it works

root@graylog:/ # service sshd start

Now, try to ssh into your TrueNAS jail from your localhost

rich@eragon:~$ ssh graylog
Password for rich@graylog:
Last login: Fri Dec  4 18:11:47 2020 from
FreeBSD 12.2-RC3 7c4ec6ff02c(HEAD) TRUENAS 

Welcome to FreeBSD!

To make it more secure you can add an SSO component or add ssh keys to each of your jails (i.e. no more typing your password). You should have convenient SSH access to your jail. Remember, with great power comes great responsibility. Also remember that you are no longer logging in as root so you’ll need to run sudo on privileged commands. Sudo should be all setup and we’ll test it in the next step.

Step 3: Install Graylog Packages

Type the following to install the graylog, elasticsearch and mongodb packages.

[rich@graylog ~]$ sudo pkg update
Updating FreeBSD repository catalogue...
FreeBSD repository is up to date.
All repositories are up to date.

[rich@graylog ~]$ sudo pkg install graylog elasticsearch6 mongodb44

Update 14-Dec: Updated post based on comments/feedback. I had made a mistake on the packages I used, which was corrected by a reader.

It may take a few mins to download and install those packages. MongoDB will be used for the graylog configuration only. All log data will be stored in the elasticsearch cluster. These packages are downloaded from FreeBSD fresh ports which is a very extensive software pkg repository. Please note as of this writing in Dec 2020, version 3.3.1 is the latest FreeBSD graylog package available but graylog itself is shipping version 4.0.2 on the website.

Step 4: Configure Software

None of the above software will be running after it’s installation. Don’t start the services yet. First, edit /etc/rc.conf to tell TrueNAS to autostart the software when the jail starts. Add these lines to the end of the file.


Next, edit the /usr/local/etc/elasticsearch/elasticsearch.yml file to change a few parameters. Add the following to the bottom of the file and save it. graylog

Start the mongoDB and the elasticsearch components by typing:

[rich@graylog ~]$ sudo service elasticsearch start

[rich@graylog ~]$ sudo service mongod start

Notice the output of the above service commands, if there are any errors starting the commands it should prompt you. You can check if both services are running by typing a netstat command.

[rich@graylog ~]$ netstat -an | grep -i listen

tcp4       0      0         *.*                    LISTEN     
tcp6       0      0 ::1.9200               *.*                    LISTEN     
tcp4       0      0         *.*                    LISTEN     
tcp6       0      0 ::1.9300               *.*                    LISTEN     
tcp4       0      0 *.22                   *.*                    LISTEN     
tcp6       0      0 *.22                   *.*                    LISTEN     
tcp4       0      0        *.*                    LISTEN  

This command shows which TCP ports are being listened to by server processes like mongo and elasticsearch. You will notice that 9200 and 9300 are elasticsearch. 22 is SSHD and 27017 is mongo. If your output from a netstat is similar then you are doing good so far. Now, we need to configure graylog and then start the service for the first time. The graylog config will be in the /usr/local/etc/graylog directory.

[rich@graylog ]$ cd /usr/local/etc/graylog

[rich@graylog ]$ sudo cp graylog.conf.example graylog.conf

[rich@graylog ]$ sudo cp log4j2.xml.example log4j2.xml   

[rich@graylog ]$ sudo mkdir server 

[rich@graylog ]$ sudo touch server/node-id 

[rich@graylog ]$ cd ..

[rich@graylog ]$ sudo chown -R graylog:graylog graylog

This will setup the initial config directory and change the owner of the files to graylog user and graylog group. That user and group should have been created when you pkg installed graylog. If you don’t have that user or group then go back to the package install step and check you did that correctly. Change directory back to /usr/local/etc/graylog and edit the graylog.conf file and ensure the variables are set as such.

is_master = true
node_id_file = /usr/local/etc/graylog/server/node-id
root_username = admin
root_timezone = UTC
bin_dir = /usr/local/share/graylog
data_dir = /usr/local/var/lib/graylog
plugin_dir = /usr/local/share/graylog/plugin

http_bind_address =

message_journal_dir = /usr/local/var/lib/graylog/journal

The above config parameters are scattered throughout the config file. Your http_bind_address will be the jail ip4 address. Ensure that all those directories like the journal directory exist and are owned by graylog:graylog. Next, set the hashed admin password and seed by running these two commands on the command line.

pwgen -N 1 -s 96

echo -n  | shasum -a 256

Edit the graylog.conf file and follow the instructions to paste the password_seed and root_password_sha2 to set those values and then save the file. Make sure the file is only readable to the graylog user and group. Now you can finally start the Graylog service

[rich@graylog ]$ sudo service graylog start

[rich@graylog ]$ sudo tail -f /var/log/graylog/server.log

Tail the /var/log/graylog/server.log file to ensure it starts correctly and no fatal errors. It takes a minute or two to startup.

Step 5: Test Jail Restart to Ensure Auto-Launch

If graylog started up correctly, go ahead and stop the jail in the TrueNAS Jails menu. Click the Edit Jail menu item under the graylog jail properties and in the Basic Properties sheet you will check the Auto-start checkbox and click save. Next you can click the start button on the graylog jail and wait a few min for everything to start up. You then should be able to access the graylog UI at http://<your ip address>:9000 (please note that you need to fill in your ip address and it will be different than mine.)

Further tutorials will include hardening + adding SSL and configuring syslog inputs.