On the Vulnerabilities of Combination Locks

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Back in December, just a few days after Kelly came home from the hospital, I went to the gym for a badly needed workout. I put my wallet and car keys in a small set of lockers located on the weight room floor. Those lockers (pictured above) have a built-in combo lock where you can set the combo yourself. Unfortunately something went wrong. When I went back to retrieve my belongings the combo I had set did not work. I asked a staff member to find the master key to open the locker. He informed me that the boss had it and that he wouldn’t be back until after the holidays. I panicked. How would I get by without my keys, credit card and driver’s license? Then I remembered an idle afternoon back in the summer when I attempted to learn how to crack combo locks.

The efforts of that afternoon paid off. After around five minutes of practice on the other lockers I figured out how to open the lock and I manged to retrieve my belongings.

Combo locks all work the same way. The internal mechanism has three or four wheels that must align to open the lock. More expensive combo locks have false gates to make them harder to crack. The cheap built-in locks at the gym had no false gates. Opening the lock was as easy as turning the numbers until I felt a subtle resistance. The process reminded me of playing a musical instrument. All it takes is a little finger dexterity and practice.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ve got a couple of options for opening a combo lock:

  • With a shim:

  • With some math:

Both the shim and the “math” methods take practice. I have not been able to open the lock I’ve been practicing on with either of these techniques. Of course, the easiest method is just to pry open a locker with a screwdriver or crowbar. And many locks can also be defeated by drilling them.

Lastly, let’s say you have an open combo lock but have forgotten the combo. You can figure it out by peering into the opening:

In addition to adding a James Bond villain skill to your mental toolkit, consider this post as a warning. Don’t leave valuables in a gym locker. I could have easily opened the other lockers, pulled out wallets, copied down credit card numbers and put the wallets back. My fellow gym goers would not have known anything was wrong until their credit card bills arrived.

Preparing For El Niño Storms

We begin this post with a gutter cleaning selfie showing the precipitous drop from the front of our house as well as a view of the “flipper fence” handrail I built for the in-laws.

The much promised El Niño rainstorms are on our doorstep this week. For those of you in the rest of the world who might be unfamiliar with the phenomenon, every decade or so weather conditions in the Northern Pacific conspire to heat up the ocean which, in turn, causes unusually heavy rainstorms to hit California. Climate change only makes this condition worse.

Most of the preparations I did are things I should do every year but have been lazy about due to the drought. But with January here I finally:

  • Cleaned the gutters and French drains. This is no fun, especially since the gutters on the front of the house are difficult to access. I discovered that the front gutter was completely clogged with loose asphalt roofing material.
  • Channeled some of the water from our gutters to the backyard garden. Since our house is on the hill I have to send the rest of the water down to the street, unfortunately.
  • Made sure to have working flashlights with fully charged batteries. Our electricity has gotten increasingly unreliable over recent years.
  • Charged the 2 meter ham radio (it’s also a scanner).
  • Got a supply of dry goods that can be cooked without opening the refrigerator/freezer.
  • Fixed the foundation (I did this ten years ago and am happy I did it, though it was expensive).

One thing I still need to do is get a charger for my cell phone. If any of you have a recommendation I’d appreciate it.

Other than pitch a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson El Niño disaster movie is there anything else I should do? What have you done to prepare for El Niño?

Stuff You Learn When the Power Goes Out

What our weekend looked like.

What our weekend looked like.

On this past sweltering Saturday, Kelly and I holed up in our bedroom, the only room of the house graced with any kind of air-conditioning. Around 4 pm the power sputtered and went out. Sprawled across the bed with the cats, we opened the window hoping to cool the room down. Instead, the unrelenting bright sunshine, palm trees, the police helicopter hovering over an adjacent street and our lack of electricity lent a Baghdad-like vibe to what remained of the afternoon. But Armageddon is not without its charms. It turns out that when the power goes out you learn a lot about yourself and the things you depend on.

The good things about losing power

  • I felt a sudden feeling of peace. Why? We had no internet. Since we don’t have a smart phone we had no way of checking email, Twitter, Facebook etc. All we had was our always reliable land line. If you wanted to reach us you had to call us. It’s funny how all this connectivity that’s supposed to improve our lives ends up being a burden. I made a mental note to consider pulling the plug on the wi-fi more often.
  • I was also thankful to have friendly neighbors. I walked over and chatted. We joked about pulling out the candles and banjos. They told me what was going on, that the power company would not be able to restore power until 1 a.m. the following day. Our friends on an adjoining street that we don’t see enough, came over with their dogs and we chatted.

The bad things about losing power

  • I discovered that when the power goes out we have a transportation problem. This is due to our quirky garage, a concrete bunker in the side of the hill our house sits on. When the power goes out the only way to open the garage doors is with a key. The problem is that you can’t close and lock them unless there is electricity. So I could access our car and bikes, but I had no way of securing the garage which is right on the street. I didn’t want to leave it open, so if we wanted to go anywhere we’d have to take the bus. Clearly, I need to fix this.
  • While I enjoyed our break from the interwebs, I also realized that a lot of information I depend on is now stored in the cloud. If the power had been out for longer I would have had problems. It was a reminder that I might need to print out and store a few vital documents and phone numbers.
  • I also realized that we should keep a few convenient dry goods in addition to the rice and beans in the pantry. I didn’t want to open the refrigerator and freezer. It would have been nice to have some trashy and easily prepared items such as mac and cheese.
  • One of the first things I did when the power went out was to pull out my 2 meter ham radio to see if I could figure out if something serious was going on. From the lack of chatter I could tell that the power outage was likely small. But I also realized that I need to periodically use the radio if I plan on using it in a real emergency.

I suppose the final lesson is the realization of just how privileged we are in the US. Most of the world’s people have to get by with unreliable power.

What have you learned when the power goes out?

A Library for a Post-Electricity Future

Just in case you need to do your own dental extractions, Survivor Library has you covered.

Just in case you need to do your own dental extractions, Survivor Library has you covered.

A recent episode of WNYC’s On the Media took a look at what would happen if a solar flare or electomagnetic pulse zapped our access to the Interwebs. What will we do when we can’t Instagram our taco platters?

One of the segments of the show profiles Rocky Rawlins, who runs a fantastic website, survivorlibrary.com. The library is a trove of pre-electricity how-to books, everything from building your own steam engine to beekeeping, navigation, parlor games and much more. Most of the books in the library date to the 19th century.

Since Survivor Library is in an electronic format, you’ll need to either print it out or build your own Faraday cage if you want to use these books after the next Carrington event.

I was particuarly excited to find, in the Survivor Library, a digitized version of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. Good riddance Wikipedia!