MetaCTF CyberGames 2021: A to Z

This year I participated in my first capture the flag (CTF) event! After a recommendation from my current Cybersecurity bootcamp instructor I’m glad I checked out MetaCTF and had a chance to participate. I learned a lot in the process, and I want to share a few writeups from the easier end of the spectrum. While these problems already have some writeups, my own approach hopefully offers at least one or two details that are instructive beyond those other great options.

A to Z (100 points)

This encrypted flag will only require a simple substitution cipher to solve. Rearrange the letters from A to Z.



To start with I ran the string through a quickly-googled Caesar cipher tool. For those unfamiliar, a Caesar cipher is a simple code system that was, in fact, used by Caesar. You simply replace one character with another character. The website I just linked uses the traditional version, where you basically start a different place in the alphabet (ex: S) and that becomes the replacement for A. Then the next letter, alphabetically (continuing with the ex: T) becomes B, and so on. When you get to the end of your code alphabet you wrap around to the beginning (ex: Z replaces H, and then A replaces G). Given the simplicity of this, it was enough to deliver an encoded message with a number (representing the starting index) if the recipient understood how it worked.

Unfortunately, after quickly scanning through all 26 possible starting positions it became clear this didn’t work. What about the second sentence? I took the given code and rearranged it’s letters from A to Z. Nope. Z to A? That didn’t work either.

You may have already figured out my mistake, but to be honest I skipped this one at the time of the event and only returned a month later, slightly better armed with a fabulous tool: Cyberchef. Cyberchef is your one-stop-shop for dealing with text across any format or encoding you can imagine. Put simply, you give it input text and a set of instructions, and it bakes the text and gives you an output text encoded/decoded however you asked.

In this case, it hit me: the cipher/key was the part I needed to rearrange! How? Well…I rearranged it so A (plain text) = Z (encoded text)…and then…what if B = Y, and so on? In other words, I just reversed the alphabet for the cipher/key.

Hmm…that didn’t help much…

It took me a second to realize my issue, but then I remember that in ASCII (or any text encoding, really) uppercase and lowercase letters are treated differently. My recipe text was all upper case, so I needed to either retype the substitution rules in lowercase…or…


…use the tools CyberChef already had. To explain in detail what’s happening here: I copy/paste the text from the challenge into the input field. Then I found the “To Upper Case” action on the left of CyberChef’s page in the “Operations” section. Similarly, I found the “Substitute” operations and dragged it below the “To Upper Case” action, because it happens second (the actions happen from top to bottom). At this point I was done–Cyberchef instantaneously output the processed text, bringing us to the flag text you see above. You can follow this link to see the exact Cyberchef configuration, and play around with it.

I hope you found this instructive. The two main takeaways here are to understand what Caesar’s cipher is, and to get a look at CyberChef.

For a hand-picked list of write-ups gleaned from MetaCTF's discord check this document I've put together. For even more writeups check here.

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Spooktober 2021 Wrap-Up: Ghoulishly Good

Greetings ghouls and goblins. We’ve just wrapped up another lovely year of our friendly little movie festival (details here) and it’s time to share some notes. At the least, future me appreciates the reminders!

We watched 28 movies (officially), totaling 48 hours, spanning 7 countries and stretching across 5 decades.

The top rated movie, on average, was unsurprisingly Stanley Kubrick’s masterful The Shining (1980), garnering 8.3 stars (out of 10).

Family time!

In last place, and well deserved, came Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive (1986), with an outstanding 3 stars (still out of 10). A famous anecdote tells us that when asked why he never directed another movie, King replied, “Did you see Maximum Overdrive?!”

All of us were ready to gouge our eyes out halfway through the first act…and it kept getting worse.

Overall, the highest ranked theme was “based on comic books” and the lowest ranked was “based on video games”. It appears to be quite difficult to adapt a very imaginative, animated video game to a live action film in particular. However, personally I was both impressed and pleasantly surprised by Doom (2005).

I can’t be the only person who assumed The Rock would end up becoming Doom Guy, right?

With an excellent cast, steady pacing, and good visual effects, it did justice to one of my favorite video game franchises. I suspect that my own familiarity with the games helped me gloss over some under-developed plot points, but, as my best friend and I often proclaim, “there’s nothing wrong with fan service!” At the least, it’s gratuitously awesome first person shooter-inspired scene greatly outdid the other movie on our list to try that: House of the Dead (2003). Not constrained by live action, the Japanese Resident Evil: Degeneration (2008) succeeded with plenty of the conspiracy and monsters that Resident Evil fans know and love.

At least Uwe Boll movies have a bit of production value…and boobs.

The other notable movie we all agreed was excellent: Candyman (2021). More of a sequel to the original 1992 film than a remake, it delivered a slick, complex expansion of the story that leaves me hoping we’ll get some more entries in the series soon.

Ultimately, why do we watch horror? The answer is personal, unique to each person. Maybe it lets you dip into the darker side of your emotions in a safe, controlled way. Maybe you savor the effects, and enjoy comparing and contrasting zombie makeup from over the years. Some people have a fond memory of a loved one who introduced them to their first slasher; others use it to help process pain inflicted by those in similar close proximity.

Personally, upon my own reflection, I decided that horror is the “other” genre. Stories and characters that don’t quite fit anywhere else find a loving home in this genre that stretches from belly laugh-inducing comedy to deeply unsettling existential examinations that stay with you for months afterwards. This “otherness” attracts the viewers who themselves lack a clear genre, classification, home.

I’m deeply honored to have made it through one more year of our little marathon with my closest genre-less friends. A special shout-out is due to Emm, master of trivia and burgeoning designer. Also, Linh, who watched most of the movies with me at home while we were locked down made the experience 100x better as we both laughed and cried and gasped at the same moments.

🎃 Until next year 🎃,

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BASED (Spooktober 2021)

The Triumvirate of Awesome hereby announces the 2021 Spooktober Film Festival theme:


Week by week we’ll look at cinema based on books (Week 1), video games (W2), comics (W3), and finally…other movies (W4)! You’re invited to join for any/all of our viewings (available through Plex).

Foreign Fridays will offer scares from around the world, while Wacky Wednesday will tickle your funny bone for those who prefer something less intense. As an homage to last year’s monster madness we’ve returned with Monster Mondays where something not-quite-human will leap across (but hopefully not out of) your screens.

Curated with scare,
The Triumvirate of Awesome

BASED (Spooktober 2021) Read More »

Endings: Nekromantik (1987)

Jörg Buttgereit created this film as a statement about censorship in Germany. When viewed through that lens it doesn’t disappoint, but just about any other perspective will leave you wanting. Plot? Shakey. Character development? Sorta.

To briefly summarize, the film centers on a young street cleaner whose business seems to primarily focus on cleaning up after gruesome car accidents. Luckily for him and his necromaniacal girlfriend this provides access to plenty of corpses. Typically stealing an eyeball here, a heart there, he amasses a collection of body parts in jars in his humble apartment. These play a delightful role in his sex life, but the real prize is a full corpse he manages to sneak back.

Sadly, after a brief period of triad bliss (boy, girl, and corpse, ooh la la) the gal makes a decision and absconds with the mummified fellow. Sorry dude, but how could you possibly compare to the rusty length of pipe installed between Sir. Always Up’s dried out legs?

Naturally this makes our street cleaner upset. Eventually this angst drives him to find another corpse to sport fuck, albeit one that starts his date alive. Once he’s finished there he returns home and we’re left with a wonderful final scene of him masturbating to completion and then some, as he cums buckets of semen and blood from a penis that gives new meaning to “wood”.

The real surprises here come from the subject material, but then in hindsight the escalation of events seems only natural. The twist occurs just a few minutes in as we realize how serious the movie’s title was, and the rest follows suit somewhat predictably. Sooo…low points for offering a surprising ending.

Similarly, we don’t find out what happened with the girlfriend and Sir Always Up. And does our humble street cleaner face any consequences for his murder/rape? Does his job ever notice the missing organs? All of these loose ends detract from the general sense of satisfaction, but on the other hand, cumming blood?! Maybe the sequel (which I haven’t watched yet) will handle the rest. Okay, some points are added back.

Which leaves us with…

Twists: 3
Execution: 2
Satisfaction: 7

Bottom line: Give it a pass unless you’re a big fan of the gore genres, anti-censorship, or, uh, you find corpses sexy.

Endings: Nekromantik (1987) Read More »

Weirdos Heroes

The Triumvirate of Awesome is back with more movies! This time around it’s a mini-marathon born of boredom as the current lock-down in Vietnam continues for it’s third month.

Emmanuel was in process of re-watching the Marvel lines of movies, and that sparked the idea to keep on the theme of heroes, but without spoiling his own watch plans. Thus was born our “Weirdos Heroes” theme.

Poster showing overview of the 3 movies planned

Comprising three films (one per member of the triumvirate) you can look forward to three film reviews. One for Watchmen (2009), another for The Crow (1994), and one more for The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003).

If you decide to join us for any part of this (anti?)heroic journey, be sure to leave a comment below!

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I found a new blog,

something I guess I’m interested in now

strangers shoving words onto a distant server

shouting into a trashcan


i’m a hipster

read: it’s better before people know about it anyway

bukowski bu-how-she’s doing?

my words on her page

flattery, but she didn’t swipe right

art school drop-up with a chip on her shoulder

i wanna eat it

savor the archetype of past art school girlfriends

all seeking for unique identity

in the same way.

but teasing aside

my inner romantic

considering a vast city of conformists

sits at the bottom of a trashcan

curious, listening

echoes Read More »

Endings: Blow Out (1981)

Nothing more American than a screaming blonde girl

I gained a minor obsession with DePalma after reading Shock Value. This quick read highlighted horror’s changes from the early days of film through the mid-90s. It focused largely on the great auteurs of the 60s-80s, and no list on horror auteurs is complete without mentioning Brian DePalma, window-voyeur extraordinaire.

Enter Blow Out, one of the early string of hits that propelled Brian into the limelight. Blow Out starts as a humble movie sound effects editor, Jack (John Travolta), stumbles across a terrible car accident while recording sounds for future FX work. Without hesitation he jumps into the icy water and rescues Sally (Nancy Allen). Cut to the hospital, and Jack wonders what has brought in scores of ravenous journalists. It turns out the other stiff in the car (already dead when Jack dove down) looked like a strong candidate for POTUS. Jack is sworn to secrecy (the usual lines about the corpse’s family suffering at the knowledge of his affair) and he leaves out the back with a dazed Sally in tow.

With an uneasiness sparked by the pleas for his secrecy Jack starts to notice other irregularities with the story. His tape recording from the eventful night clearly indicates a shot rang out prior to the titular blow out.

From here the relationship betwixt Jack and Sally develops, and DePalma fleshes out (pun intended) their motivations. Simultaneously we see hired gun Burke (John Lithgow) attempting to tie up loose ends…

Thrillers, in particular, call for tightly crafted endings. As writer and director, DePalma exercises maximum creative control over the production, and it shows. Tensions build steadily, plot lines converging towards a magnificent final scene. Specifically, Sally and Jack converge upon Burke (demonstrably a cruel, heartless killer by this point) in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

Our final moments come with literal fireworks, a giant flag, quality screams, and Jack’s slow motion dash to save Sally. It’s difficult to raise the ante, but Travolta’s facial expressions as he exacts revenge/justice upon Burke (with Burke’s own icepick) combine with flashing red and blue lights across Sally’s dead figure, and finally, fireworks in the background as he clutches her lifeless body to his. It might be a bit too strong, in fact, but I don’t mind a bit of cheese every now and then. In fact, I love it!

The epilogue brings a moment of black irony as we hear Sally’s very real scream dubbed into the very B-horror movie we opened with nearly two hours ago. A television news broadcast is conspicuously lacking talk of a the assassination conspiracy, and in the end, Jack is the final victim, alive, but carrying the weight of his knowledge alone; the movie scream guy haunted by the real thing.

Twists: 3 (pretty damn predictable, although Sally’s death was up for debate until the very end)
Execution: 9 (DePalma is a technical master)
Satisfaction: 6 (purposely leaves you a bit empty, good effect, but I’d have preferred a bit more justice)

Endings: Blow Out (1981) Read More »

Endings: Breathless (1983)

“God, you’re such a fuck-up” says a casual business associate. “Yeah, I know” Jesse (Richard Gere) responds.

Part crime story, part love story, Jesse’s rough ‘n tumble lifestyle was bound to lead to heartache. The trajectory is clear from the first minute of the story — Jessie’s manner tells you everything you need to know with the unfocused gaze, slick smile, and carefree posture.

A character who casually murders a cop then dances and prances alone in the shower an hour later clearly doesn’t consider consequences. Yet the consequences assault him at every turn. For someone who tries to live in the moment he wastes a lot of time correcting past actions.

A few highlights

  • the soundtrack (a diverse selection from Philip Glass to Sam Cooke to King Sunny Ade)
  • Jessie’s obsession, even allegiance, to the ideals embodied by the Silver Surfer, a comic he returns to frequently throughout the flick
  • Monica (Valérie Kaprisky), the French college student swept away by Jesse’s force majeure
  • A cacophony of classic cars

So how’s it all end? Seemingly inevitable tragedy? Redemption, clarity, forgiveness? Luck and a trip to Mexico with no hint of character growth?

How about betrayal? Monica calls the cops in a moment of despair…a glimmer of a chance for escape…but what does escape mean without his lover? Rather than run we’re left with Jesse reaching down for the gun between his feet, freeze frame as he straightens up and aims for the calvary, outgunned, but not outloved.

I love a movie that leaves the ending open to interpretation. Jesse mowed down, suicide by cop would have been sad. But cutting a few seconds short of that leaves you with a sense of love triumphing over all, before the blood washes all other feelings away.

Twists: 2
Execution: 9
Satisfaction: 8

Endings: Breathless (1983) Read More »

Endings: Wrath of Man (2021)

Guy Ritchie’s new movie is out. He previously brought us gritty classics like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and…the live-action Aladdin. Okay, maybe that last one isn’t the same as the first two, but this new one, Wrath of Man, certainly is, and whereas there was a sense of lightheartedness in Snatch (for example) this movie has abandoned all hope, ye who enter prepare for pure crime, drama, and lots of killing.

Let’s cut straight to the end. It’s in the post title, after all. Spoilers in 3…2…1…okay I warned you…

Yeah, so…everyone dies. If you’re looking for a movie where the good guy triumphs and the comedic relief character pulls through you’ll likely be disappointed. The protagonist does triumph, to be fair, but he’s hardly a good guy. Any glimmer of a positive message from this steadily dies in the third act, one bullet to the head at a time. Personally I was left feeling a bit dirty, even a bit dismayed. I had really expected a few of the “good guys” or at least “neutral folks” to survive.

But…then I remembered the title. A good ending resonates with the title that introduced you to the work of art, coming full circle. Wrath lives up to its reputation as a deadly sin in this flick, no doubt about it. I’m reminded of how I feel when I’ve been wrathful. There’s this feeling of waking up, a sense of horror growing as I look upon the work of some monster that shares my body.

The end of Wrath of Man left me feeling the same way. A story featuring wrath can end in redemption, given enough time. With Ritchie’s wrenching meditation on wrath our horror steadily grows and grows…and then credits roll. If you want redemption, check out Aladdin.

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Endings: Remembrance of Earth’s Past

Welcome to the “Endings” series of posts. So often a piece of art captivates you from the beginning, only to fizzle out with an ending that isn’t fully developed or satisfying. While reviews for these pieces exist in entirety, I thought I’d have fun just focusing on the endings. Was it satisfying or not? It probably goes without saying, but spoilers will abound here. Read on at your own risk…or pleasure?

Liu Cixin may be the greatest science fiction writer to ever live. He’s certainly the most popular sci-fi writer alive today. Maybe he’s lucky that his target audience is the most populated country in the world (China) but as his works are steadily translated for readers worldwide it seems clear to me that his success is hardly limited to China.

At any rate, after years of hearing his name repeated on the sci-fi forums I finally picked up the work considered by many to be his Magnum Opus: the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. In keeping with the theme I’ll avoid discussing the first 2 books, and instead focus on how things wrapped up in the final book: Death’s End.

Like any monumental science fiction epic the span of this series is staggering. Ignoring the first two books, this final one stretches from the Fall of Constantinople all the way to the end of the universe, billions of years later. Taking a reader that’s already heavily involved with characters and story lines from the first books and then guiding them across billions of years with over a dozen new characters without losing their interest is a most difficult feat. Cixin made it look easy.

Without digging too deeply into the plot let me simply say that I had no complaints here. There are necessarily holes in plot lines as the story hops forward by 50 years, 100 years, etc. I’m sure Wade’s story as the owner of Cheng’s company would be an interesting book on its own, but I’m content letting my imagination fill in the holes with his and others’ stories. As I neared the end of the book I’ll admit I was a bit anxious to hear about one particular character: Luo Ji. Suffice it to say Cixin clearly understood this concern and closed that particular narrative with poignant solemnity.

Beyond the plot (who did what and when?) we have powerful themes (why did they do it? why does anyone do anything?) that grow from ripples in a small Earth pond (from the first book) to ripples across galaxies (by the last book). Science fiction has long given us the means to examine ideas that were otherwise too big, controversial, or outright strange for fiction grounded in reality. The translators notes at the start of the book are especially interesting, noting how careful Cixin has been to avoid writing things that would get him locked up by the not-so-forgiving government censors famously scrutinizing all Chinese art. For example, he couldn’t talk about his own government’s war crimes, but the war crimes of Trisolarans? No problem!

A few thematic ideas resonated with me in particular. First, we had the concept of the Dark Forest. This chilling thought experiment suggests that broadcasting electromagnetic signals across the universe ends about as well as walking into a police station and shooting a few bullets indiscriminately in the floor and ceiling. The theory suggests upon discovery of a new species, a sufficiently advanced civilization’s best course of action is to eliminate the newly discovered species before the newcomer’s technology reaches the level of a threat. Considering our own human history of conquest and exploration this idea rings true to me! Luckily, we’ve got another large idea to counter this concern…the size of the universe.

With any good “hard” sci-fi work you’ll find a lot of discussion of the limits of light speed, and this series is no different. Thankfully the universe is huge, and even signals from Earth traveling at their maximum speed (see: light speed) would likely decay greatly by the time they reach another civilization. We’re hopefully okay for now, at least until we figure out how to start using the Sun as a signal amplifier…

Beyond the “dark forest” concept there are many other tasty, imaginative ideas to be found as we wrap up the series. Too many, in fact, for me to discuss in detail. We get glimpses of truly advanced civilizations, an idea of cosmic history stretching from the big bang to the end of the universe. Closer to home we see the worst of humanity…followed by the best! And this brings us to the true ending of endings.

To quickly summarize, in our last chapters we see all of humanity, save two humans and a third brain, destroyed. We’re reminded of the finality of death, the insignificance of humanity compared to our solar system (let alone our galaxy or our universe), and the fragility of life. Up until this point (most of the way through the third book) we’ve watched as generations of humans struggled to survive, seemingly all for naught in the end. I feel Cixin could have ended it there, but instead those few survivors close the tale with a story of hope, joy, and life. Not only do they escape the destruction of humanity by an uncaring, anonymous alien force, but they go on to thrive until the end of the universe. In the end none of us really expects to survive, but we do hope a piece of us continues to exist past our demise. The ending gave us that tiny hope, enough to leave me feeling optimistic despite 99.99999999% of humanity being erased. A small flame in an ocean of darkness buoys us, the ratio of dark to light notwithstanding.

Twists: 9/10
Satisfaction: 10/10

Endings: Remembrance of Earth’s Past Read More »

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