All posts by Hann

Photographer, Author, Filmmaker, Tech Evangelist, Design Lover, Casual Gamer, Pop Culture Geek, Freelancer

Vanilla MasterCard hacking tips.

No, this isn’t some illegal scam on trying to steal from MasterCard. I’m not that kind of hacker. This is actually about maximizing your use of the Vanilla MasterCard (henceforth referred to as VMC) in Canada. As Canadians, we seem to get screwed over a lot in retail goods when compared to our southern neighbors, but with a little ingenuity and this article, we can perhaps try to work the system to our advantage.

I usually buy my VMCs from Shoppers Drug Mart or petrol stations like Shell or Petro-Canada. You can register it on the VMC website as a US credit card with any valid ZIP code. You just have to make sure to match the City and State to which the ZIP code belongs. I’ve been doing this for a few years now and haven’t had any issues.

One thing to note though is that if you buy a VMC that’s close in value to what you’re buying (e.g. buying a $25 card for a $22.99 purchase), some companies will do a small pre-authorization charge on the card, making the full balance unavailable for 3-7 days. Keep this in mind when dealing with services like Rdio’s Family Plan for three (which is exactly $22.99 US).

Another thing to keep in mind is that even though you are registering the VMC as a US card, transactions still take place in Canadian funds. So a $25 card will only give you whatever the exchange rate is for US funds.

The main disadvantage with VMCs is the activation fee you have to pay for at the counter. It starts at $1.95 for a $25 card and goes up to something like $7.95 for a $200 card. However, you don’t get charged periodic interest and the balance virtually stays with you until you either spend the full amount or you exceed the expiration date. VMC is one of the few gift cards that doesn’t try to eat up your money if you leave it dormant.

Pro Tip

For pesky minor balances of a few cents and dollars that you can’t find something on which to spend, just buy a custom email gift certificate and send it back to yourself. I’ve accumulated enough of an Amazon gift card balance on my account with all the cards I’ve bought over the years. It adds up. The reason I choose is because VMC deals in Canadian funds, and trying to find the exact exchange rate used by is like pulling teeth. Save yourself the hassle. Also, don’t forget to login to the VMC website to register your card back to a Canadian postal code.

Vanilla MasterCard hacking tips.

On a separate note, VMC also coincidentally stands for Vergil May Cry. Hmm.

My adventures as a polyglot.

As I had previously announced on Facebook, one of my life goals is to become a polyglot. It’s always been a personal goal of mine when I think about it; I’ve been super interested in languages even from a young age. Although I didn’t speak it, I had a rudimentary understanding of Cantonese-Chinese, which is my parents’ native language.

At some point in my Kindergarten age I was speaking Cantonese-Chinese fluently, but growing up in a small community of primarily Cree and English speaking people left me discriminated by the other children, so I had allegedly told my mom that I didn’t want to speak it anymore. Or so my mom says; I really don’t remember this. On a side note, I later realized that I was probably discriminated against in school because I was not only Chinese, but a geek as well. Hahaha. I suspect this because my younger brother had no major troubles in school due to his social and athletic abilities.

That said, my spoken Cantonese took a nosedive over the years until I started re-identifying with my Chinese roots in high school. I was also interested in Japanese at the same time. Add to that the French that I decided to keep up with as an elective for fun after the compulsory five years in elementary and junior high. That’s right; for fun. More on that later though.

Fast forward to today. The recent developments in China forced every citizen into speaking Mandarin at work and school, and I always thought that learning it would be useful, but I never got around to doing it because of various reasons. Until now, when I met my current girlfriend who’s from Northern China.

So I accelerated my learning through technology, but it wasn’t enough because I am still unable to communicate with her in Chinese.

Over the past few weeks, I had been following the exploits of one polyglot named Benny Lewis, who offered a language hacking guide on his website called Speak from Day One (SFDO). I watched his TEDX Talk, I watched his videos, I read his blog, and I broke down and bought his SFDO resources last night.

My adventures as a polyglot.

While reading through the language hacking guide, he went into starting a blog to keep track of your exploits, but since I already have a blog (several, actually) I decided to integrate it into my main blog. So here I am with my first post and ready to learn!

Bonus Features!

What I already know.

My language advantage is that I am already much further ahead than I thought on the road to becoming multilingual. I have a good vocabulary of Cantonese and I practice it enough at home to appear fluent; I just need more practice and vocabulary. Connecting this knowledge to Mandarin has made it made it easy to study the vocabulary since some words sound similar. I still recognize some French and I can get by with basic phrases so I’m not an absolute beginner there. Japanese is probably my biggest regret because I spent years studying it and I still cannot speak it fluently. My parents are from Malaysia, so I know a few Malay words. My mom and aunt are hooked on Korean dramas so I also recognize some Korean.

Why I like it.

I think everybody would like to learn another language if they could. But I have always shown a dedication to linguistics at a young age. In 8th grade French, we started learning how to conjugate verbs so I went to the Coles bookstore, which had just opened locally at the time, and I bought books on French verbs and idioms. I was reading up on verb conjugations for fun. Seriously, who does that? Hahaha. In high school, I was told by my French teacher that I had excellent pronunciation. I constantly scored over 90% in my French classes, more than any other class I attended in school (I scored an average of 75% in computer classes, for comparison’s sake). If I had a halfway decent school counselor, he/she would have told me that I had a future in linguistics and I wouldn’t have gone into IT. But at the same time, I wouldn’t have learned from Benny like I am now. Life does work in mysterious ways.

My target language goals.

I’m jumping the gun here, but I’ve always had a list of must-learn languages – Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. Conquering the oriental tongues has been a dream of mine, and anything after that would have been extra. But as I started to understand myself, I recognized (with the help of Benny’s LHG) that languages are for communication and that I want to be able to communicate with anybody in their native language because I just think it’s cool and a good way to learn about other people’s cultures. There are large populations of other cultures here in town that I could potentially learn Punjabi, Portuguese, and Tagalog with full immersion sans travel/Internet. Cool, right? But I do want to travel. Doing so with fluency would be the sweet spot.

DIY home storage infrastructure project.

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you’ll know that my storage space has been reduced to 60 GB and now I’m putting my files in hard drives on my other machines. My NAS cannot handle the capacity needed for backups, so I’m standing on the edge. I decided that I have enough money left in my budget to do an emergency hardware upgrade of my storage system, so I started actively researching this week, although I have been passively researching the past few months. The question was, should I build a DAS, NAS or SAN? Maybe a bit of all three.

What I already have

  • ASUS G53S laptop for gaming (500 GB SATA for data + 3 TB USB for media storage)
  • C2D custom box for XBMC (1 TB for secondary media storage)
  • QNAP TS-409 Pro (effective 3 TB RAID-5 for backup)
  • Acer Aspire T671 (Pentium D 820 garbage system)
  • Apple iMac (1 TB for unused storage)

Shopping list

  • 3 x 3 TB WD Red SATA HDD
  • 1 x Rosewill RC-219 eSATA PCI-E x1 card
  • 1 x Intel PWLA8391GT PRO/1000 PCI network interface card
  • 3 x 2 TB WD Red SATA HDD
  • 1 x MediaSonic HF2-SU3S2 USB3 + eSATA 4-bay enclosure
  • 1 x CineRAID CR-H458 USB3 + eSATA 4-bay enclosure
  • 1 x Mushkin Enhanced Mulholland 8 GB USB2 flash drive
  • 1 x ASUS EeeBox EB1012P-B0320 box


  1. The first goal is to replace the C2D custom box with the EeeBox for XBMC duties. There’s a lot of serious hardware in the C2D box that I can repurpose into a gaming box later on, but the current plan is to run it as an underpowered ESXi box running a FreeNAS VM. With a VM, I can back up the VM and choose to migrate it anywhere I want later. Also, FreeNAS has enhanced performance running as a VM, so that’s a bonus. Unfortunately, the C2D box has an onboard Atheros NIC that doesn’t get detected by ESXi 5.1, so I’ll have to install the Intel NIC. I might check for an Atheros third party driver that I can add to the ISO with ESXi-Customizer later. As a sidenote, my whole house is running GbE hardware, so if I can configure FreeNAS as an iSCSI target, even better.
  2. Optional. I do plan on installing Server 2012 just to handle the CIFS/SMB sharing over the network, but it’s tentative because I don’t know if the C2D can handle it (and with only 1 GB of RAM to spare).
  3. Next is to install the eSATA card into the C2D box, then I can attach the CineRAID and MediaSonic enclosures to it by eSATA. The Rosewill card is supposed to support FIS-based switching with port multipliers to allow multiple drives to be detected on one eSATA interface; the reason for this is because the enclosures are going to be configured as JBOD only; I’ll be depending on FreeNAS to do software RAID, and I’ll be giving it the 6 GB of RAM it needs to accomplish this, since I have 8 GB total in the C2D box. The CineRAID enclosure will be my main storage point while the MediaSonic is going to be a backup device. I currently have a Dropbox paid subscription, but I’m considering either CrashPlan or BackBlaze for online backup for offsite backup, so that will cover my three points of storage.
  4. The 2 TB drives are going into the CineRAID to act as my main storage point while the 3 TB drives will be placed into the MediaSonic for backup. The reason why I’m using more storage for backup is because I intend to not only have compressed backup jobs, but also Windows 8 File History for on-site versioning in addition to Dropbox’s Pack Rat feature. This will ensure that I always have access to a daily version of a file at any given point in time.
  5. Finally, the 8 GB flash drive will be used to boot XBMCbuntu on the EeeBox.

The definition in the end

This is a bit complicated. I’m connecting two JBOD enclosures to the C2D box with eSATA; that part defines a DAS. I’m using FreeNAS to handle software RAID and hopefully act as an iSCSI target; that part is a SAN. My gaming laptop (or file server) is going to be the device that will act as an iSCSI initiator, and will be sharing out the files I store on it over the network using CIFS/SMB; that part is a NAS. So, in the end, I suppose it really is a combination of all three to create an enterprise level storage solution. It turns out I really thought this one through!

Future plans

I ordered 4-bay enclosures for the sole purpose of using all 4 bays. However, I only ordered 3 drives for each enclosure because of budget constraints. I’ll be getting the last remaining drives later on as my storage needs grow. Thin provisioning anybody? LOL. I’m only one person, so probably not (unless I feel like fooling around with it). :P

My main computer, unfortunately, is my gaming laptop. I’d like to replace it with a gaming desktop. This will allow me to do easy upgrades in the future. My old gaming desktop that died was a prebuilt Acer. When I think back, the cost to buy all new custom hardware would have been way cheaper than the laptop itself, but the gimmick in owning a gaming laptop was too great at the time; now the hardware is starting to show its age.

I am planning to build a proper server next year. A SuperMicro custom build is in the works (I have some select hardware in my wishlist) to allow for Server 2012, FreeNAS, SAS, 10 GbE, and other fun enterprise level stuff not appropriate for a SOHO. :D

DIY home storage infrastructure project.

Believe it or not, I’m still learning all this stuff despite sounding like I know what I’m talking about; the invested returns on months-long research was pretty good. Hopefully the parts arrive next week. Keep checking my Twitter feed for more info!