The Misadventures of Quinxy truths, lies, and everything in between!


What Misery from 9/11

As horrible as the terrorist events on 9/11 were, the worst thing that happened on that day we did to ourselves.  We forgot the truth within the 18th century quote (variously expressed, and variously attributed to Jefferson and Franklin amongst others):

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

How can anyone argue the truth of that statement?  How can anyone argue that we did not betray that guiding principle?

We let the Patriot Act happen, we let the NSA and other clandestine agencies run wild, we began a forever war, creating new enemies perhaps more quickly than we can kill the old ones.  Will freedoms lost ever be restored?  Surely not.  Technology has only made it easier to violate our freedoms and harder to detect when they are violated.

Most confounding to me is that many of those seemingly most comfortable with this situation, with the violation of the above seemingly inarguable (to me) truth, are the same people who are the most unyielding when it comes to any suggested restriction of gun ownership.  How can one be unwilling to have any government involvement in weapons ownership/transfer for fear of encouraging tyranny or loss of God and Constitution given freedoms, and yet permit/accept the same government should be able to observe our phone and online activity?  It seems like wild hypocrisy to me, but maybe I'm not understanding some nuances involved in the argument; or maybe for those individuals it's really not so much about a love of freedom so much as it is a love of the gun (and its use).

Ah well, another sad 9/11, for so many reasons.

^ Q


The Idiocy & Dishonesty of Racism

(Racism comes in so many varied and often subtle forms that it complicates talking about it; you need to be pretty specific about just what element/manifestation of racism you're talking about.  In this case I'll discuss one of the uglier and most visible kinds.)

To my mind the worst form of racism is the belief that one race is superior to another and that the superior race should take action (legal, social, religious, etc.) against the inferior race as a result of that conviction.  Examples are legion, and included nations as well as social/political organizations (South Africa (during Apartheid), Germany (during the Nazi reign), U.S.A. (during antebellum and Jim Crow), as well as the KKK, neonazis, etc.)

What boggles my mind is the idiocy and dishonesty of their position.

When I was 14 I was at a small summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina.  Everyone working at the camp and everyone attending the camp was lily white; no one of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent.  Almost everyone at the summer camp was from the surrounding Southern states.  Racism was rampant but fortunately ugly comments rarely came up since there was not but a pale face to be seen or insulted.  But I remember this one time the topic came up, and this one boy, whose name was the name of a kind of monkey, suddenly announced, "I am smarter than any black person on the face of the Earth."  What made this seem instantly laughable, distracting me temporarily from the horrendous and vulgar racism, was that he was truly one of the stupidest people (of any genetic background) I'd ever encountered; he was almost sitcom human stupid or perhaps penniless Trump stupid.  But he was serious, horribly serious, and I feared and felt for anyone of any non-white hue who might ever cross his path.  Several of us there argued with him, tried to point out the ridiculousness of his statement, but he was having none of it.  He was so unaware of his own place in the universe that one could hardly hope to convince him of anyone else's place within it.  I was still young, but I had certainly come across quite a few people, made from all sorts of different genes, who I knew or strongly suspected were vastly smarter than I was.  How could this idiot imagine he was smarter than ~1 billion or so (depending on what you count) people he'd never met?  That is idiotic and worse deeply dishonest, as he lived in a major city in the South, and surely had encountered many black people who were infinitely smarter than he was, and he simply chose not to notice or believe it.

But it is not hard to imagine why he (and others) seem to need to believe such an absurd position, need to believe that they are better than an entire race, because things get rather confusing for them if they don't.  The wildly racist often profess strong values, and no doubt most try to live in accordance with them.  And many of their values involve a love of freedom, family, righteousness, justice, etc.  So to avoid a deep and disturbing sense of hypocrisy they must write off the members of the group against which they stand.  If all blacks people are inferior to white people then they can see a logic in allowing them fewer rights, deeming them unworthy of a full and equal position in the world, and any white actions taken against blacks are reasonable in defense of white interests.  If these racists allow that some percentage of black people are actually their (individual) superior (across many facets of being, including intellectually), then what are those racists going to feel?  I think some parts of their brain would cry foul, detect their hypocrisy, detect their injustice, and threaten their ordered world view.  And so it is only a stable and comfortable position if every white man is inherently superior to every single black man (a position requiring ample employ of idiocy and dishonesty).

I keep wondering if that particular camper ever wised up.  I hope he has.

^ Q


The Ongoing Curiosity of China

China mystifies me.  Their recent military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII is one confounding example.  They stage a huge parade to show off all their offensive and defensive weapons, shut down the city days in advance to make sure people are out of the way and the air is unpolluted, invite some foreign dignitaries, and ban their citizens from watching the parade in person (no standing on balconies, no opening windows, no looking out windows, no standing on the street watching, no watching from cars, no photos, etc.); presumably there is approved news coverage they can watch/read.  But, what a bizarre idea?  I thought events like this were meant to impress the people, involve the people, akin to the pre-war Nazi parades.  When you have to keep the people away out of fear of activism or terrorism then the parade seems more an admission of abject defeat than triumph.

^ Q

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A Chew Too Far : When Gum’s Polymers Unravel

I learned a very interesting lesson in 1995 or so, sitting in a materials engineering class in college.  We'd recently learned about polymers and how the long chains of entwined molecules worked, from a mechanical and chemical standpoint.  I happened to be chewing on a piece of gum.  I had been chewing on that piece of gum for probably half the day; I began in one long lecture and just continued into the next long lecture, either forgetting to spit it out or finding no appropriate place to do so in the limited time between or during classes.  And then, seated in class, thousands of chews and hundreds of minutes in, the gum I was gnawing on disintegrated, going from a resilient rubbery mass to a foul liquiform mess.  Any solidity was gone, it was just suddenly simply everywhere in my mouth, clinging to everything and nothing, desperately needing to be spit out.  I quickly excused myself to the bathroom and did so.  I had no idea what had happened at first, it being such an unexpected and seemingly unlikely event.  But as I sat through the remainder of class it became clear to me, the gum had undergone some sort of spontaneous depolymerization, presumably as a result of prolonged contact with saliva and not chewing.  The long and entwined molecules had suddenly come apart.  That this happened during a materials class in which we'd recently studied polymers was a delicious coincidence.

^ Q


Penn & Teller Bullet Catch Revealed

bullet_catch_1One of magician act Penn & Teller's favorite tricks is their Bullet Catch trick, you can see them perform their Bullet Catch on their Fool Us show (for as long as it lasts on YouTube).

After seeing some people inaccurately explain the trick I figured I'd post my belief of how the trick is done.

The trick is simple in design, two audience members come on stage, one for each magician to work with.  Each audience member uniquely signs the jacket and projectile of a bullet and those bullets are supposedly fired by each magician across the stage to the other magician, with the bullet miraculously being caught in their teeth.  The bullets and jackets are inspected by the audience members and the projectiles appear to have indeed crossed the stage.  The trick is performed with the magicians' careful to explain that none of the participants nor any props ever cross the stage, making the firing of the guns appear the only method by which the bullets could be transferred.

But, it's a magic trick, so of course not everything is as it seems...

Now, revealing secrets of a magic trick might be a douche-y thing to do.  I'm of mixed opinions.  When a magician has put a tremendous amount of time and effort constructing a trick it seems rather cruel to have an audience, particularly in the age of infinite instant replays, deconstruct it.  But, a) the bullet catch is a very old trick (beginning as early as the 1600s) and b) Penn & Teller's career has often involved divulging tricks and discussing publicly how tricks are performed.  So it seems like discussing a trick of theirs is fair game.

Projectile Never in the Gun

After inserting the bullets Penn & Teller let the members of the audience confirm that it is their bullet in the gun.  But the magicians control the view.  Look at the placement of the bullet, it is inserted far enough into the chamber that the view of the projectile is obscured.  It is obscured because the projectile is no longer in the jacket, having been palmed and then secreted away.


Projectile Passed to Stage Hand

Getting the projectile to the other side is the central feat of the trick.  And the first thing to note is that after Penn & Teller have loaded the guns they go and manipulate the bullet backstops.   The backstops are positioned against the wall and at such an angle, this obscures the magicians' hands for a moment and would allow stage hands to take something from the magicians' hands without being observed.



The stage hands would then have ~16 seconds to run around from one side to the other and place the bullet such that the other magician could access it.

Along the way the stage hand would need to force the bullet through a manual contraption which adds the rifling grooves to the bullet (which Penn & Teller show the audience) and perhaps gets dusted with freshly burnt gun powder for added effect.

How the Bullet Gets into their Mouths

The bullet proof vests that Penn & Teller wear are initially hanging from the edge of the stage wall, again a very suggestive location, since a stage hand could easily access (part of) the vests without being observed by the audience.  I believe that once the stand hand makes it to the other side he/she secures the bullet to inside top of the vest via a magnet (the bullet having been modified to have a steel core).


When Penn & Teller put the vests on over their head their mouths are obscured, and I believe they collect the bullets with their mouths and tuck them into their cheeks.  Penn is talking while this is happening so clearly he does it very deftly, pausing in his speech in a purely normal manner as though between words.


And voila, the bullet has been transferred and the rest of the trick is relatively simple.  A bullet with a wax projectile is fired with less than the normal amount of powder it breaks the glass pane the magicians have placed between them and the magicians relocate the projectile from the cheeks to their teeth.


Alternative theories I've read suggest that stage hands watching TV monitors reproduce the markings of the audience members, but I think Penn & Teller are a little more sophisticated than that, and the method described above would allow the projectile to actually travel from one side to the other unseen.

Personally I think this is one of their weaker tricks, so I've been surprised to hear them describe it in such laudatory terms.

^ Quinxy


Why Do Republicans / Conservatives Like Arguably “Stupid” Candidates?

I do not feel myself a part of any party.  While my individual views on various topics make me slightly more aligned to Democratic positions, I do not feel aligned with most Democrats. I think neither side is uniquely wise or wonderful.  Both sides are capable of good ideas and bad ones, good acts and bad ones.  But these last ten or so years have mightily confused me, because the Republicans (meaning those who vote Republican as well as those who rule the party) have backed so many people who seem so glaringly unsuitable.  I once read an opinion piece that suggested that Republicans (and conservatives generally) prefer candidates with whom they can strongly relate (people that seem like them, not higher in class, intelligence, etc.)  and Democrats (and liberals generally) prefer candidates who they can look up to (at least in areas of intelligence and achievement).  I'm not sure if that is true, but it made a certain sense.

George W. Bush may be a highly intelligent man, his Yale graduation would seem to demand that he is, but whenever I watched him speak or interact with people I cringed, feeling as though I was watching a person with some mental incapacity.  His use of language, his expressed logic, his mannerisms, all suggested to me some sort of deficit.  I never assumed Bush was actually not intelligent or capable, I simply assumed I was interpreting him incorrectly.  My perception is not reality, and I know this.  When I moved to London I remember being very confused at first because to me a very large percentage of British males seemed gay.  The greater London male preoccupation with fashion seemed to be triggering my gaydar, and it took me some months to adjust my perceptions.  So, likewise with Bush I have always assumed my perception must be inaccurate, that perhaps if I was from Texas I might not be thrown off.  But my brain was never able to make the adjustment even after so many years of being exposed to Bush.  But, perhaps it was still just my error of perception.

And then McCain chose Palin as his running mate.  And I can find no way to rationalize or to excuse that, no way to explain Palin to myself as simply misunderstood.  Sarah Palin seems to me totally and completely unsuitable to be president.  She seems to me genuinely stupid and wildly ill- and under- informed.  McCain choosing her made me lose a considerable amount of faith in the Republican party.  That choice may have been a popular one, a well calculated one, perhaps their best shot at the office, but if they would be willing to do that then it felt like they had lost their sense of right and wrong.

And now Donald Trump is the Republican front-runner...  leading in the polls by a considerable margin.  The most fitting description I have seen of Donald Trump is that he is like a child in a man's body.  He seems to reason and act and speak like a child trying to function in a world of adults.  He is quick to speak, fast to attack, seems often to bypass thought or introspection, and regularly says things which seem delusional.  He is dangerously unsuited to leading a country, and yet he is the current choice of Republican voters, if not leadership.

I can't help but feel like the Republicans / conservatives have lost their way, now routinely supporting, funding, endorsing totally unsuitable and "stupid" candidates.  I hope they get back to the business of being serious and substantial leaders, with reason and sense equal to their glorious vision for American greatness.

^ Q


Quit Your Bitchin’ About Airplane Flights – You’re Getting What You Paid For

I get a little tired of seeing people complain about air travel and lamenting how different it is now compared to the 1950s and 1960s.  People act as though the problem is that the airlines have reduced quality in order to make lavish profits.  But it's the passengers who have led the change, not the airlines.  Ever compare the inflation adjusted cost of an airline ticket from the 1950s/1960s to one of today?  The 1950s/1960s ticket costs about the same as a first class ticket does today (adjusted for inflation and buying power about four to five times what a modern coach seat costs).  In other words, everyone on that bygone plane was paying for and receiving first class accommodations and treatment.  If the public had wanted to continue doing that arrangement the airlines would have continued providing it, but we all collectively decided to spend our money elsewhere and the first class cabin shrunk from the entire plane down to just a few rows.  If you're not willing to spend money on a first class ticket today, then be quiet, sit down, and enjoy your glorified cross-country bus ride.

^ Q

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Making the Best of Amazon Cloud Drive – Mapped Drive – Encryption – Speed

Amazon Cloud Drive recently relaunched with an enticing offer: unlimited storage in the cloud for $59/year.  Imagine a world in which you never run out of disk space to store photos, video, backups, etc.!  And where you never have to worry about drive failures, or backups, because they back everything up for you!

Sounds great, right?  Certainly a much better deal than you'd get with Amazon's S3 or DropBox or most of the other major players.  But, the devil is in the details...  and Amazon has made sure to this offering of theirs isn't going to break them financially.

The Amazon Cloud Drive software they provide is effectively useless.  They removed the previously available sync feature, presumably in an effort to discourage users from actually using their service.  And it is woefully weak in terms of basic capabilities.  You can drag and drop to upload (but no ability to choose a remote folder) and if you want to view or navigate your files you click a link in the app and it opens up a browser window and you have to use a very crude web interface.  There's just something so sad about software engineered purposely to discourage user's receiving maximum benefit of a service.

Fortunately there is a way around this pain point.  Amazon has made available an API that software vendors have used to allow you to map a network/local drive to an Amazon Cloud Drive.  The best products for these that I have tested are NetDrive2 (PC) and ExpanDrive (PC/Mac).  Using these products makes your Amazon Cloud Drive just like a locally attached hard drive, only much, much slower.  Amazon throttles your upload and download speed to the service, so uploads work at about 1 MB/s and downloads are at about 10 MB/s.  This limitation pretty much guarantees that they don't have to worry about you over-using their service.  To upload 1 TB it'll take you at least 12 days, assuming no errors, hiccups, problems; I've had enough trouble (timeouts, errors, etc.) transferring mere gigabytes that my primary hope of the service, freeing up local external drives by transferring the long term backups they contain to my Amazon Cloud Drive is probably not going to happen.  I can't really blame them for crippling the service in an effort to be profitable, but it does annoy me a little bit.

Beyond their crippled software and their transfer throttling, a much more serious issue exists...  Data security.  Now there are two main concerns here: integrity and privacy.  Personally, within this context, I am not worried about integrity as I would never transfer to a cloud drive like this anything which I do not also have on at least one local drive (with the exception of older system backups or files which I would not really mind losing).  Amazon Cloud Drive claims (vaguely) that they backup your data, but they provide no real details, so I cannot trust it.  But what does worry me quite a bit is privacy.  We are never more than a few weeks away from major news stories disclosing that yet another big company has had its users' data stolen.  Given that only a username and password is needed to access your Amazon Cloud Drive files, and that you do not keep encryption keys locally on your computer, I would never consider Amazon Cloud Drive a secure solution.  That said, it can still be useful as long as you never upload any files containing personal data without first separately encrypting them (using some other encryption solution).  Intriguingly I found a genius solution to this general problem.  Cryptomator sits atop your cloud drive (as its own mapped drive) and adds encryption to both the files and the file names/directory structure you create within it.  Sadly, for Amazon Cloud Drive users, it was designed with syncing cloud solutions in mind, such as Google Drive, and not Amazon Cloud Drive.  Because it expects to operate on local files which are later synced to the cloud it performs file operations directly on the files where they sit (for encryption/decryption) which seem to involve i/o commands not supported by the mapped cloud drives (I tested this in both NetDrive2 and ExpanDrive).  I have talked to the developer and may try to patch their code to see if merely making the file operations take place on a true local drive might not fix the issue.  You could use Cryptomator as you would a syncing drive service, but that means that you would need at least one extra local copy of all the content you wish to ultimately send to your Amazon Cloud Drive, and then you'd also need to sync that content in an automated way (using something like Good Sync, which I use for other things) , and that's not a viable or acceptable solution for me.  For now at least the only option is to use other products to encrypt your personal files before uploading.

So, my ultimate conclusion is that for $59/year Amazon Cloud Drive when used with NetDrive and acknowledging its serious limitations, is worth it, but only a little more than just.  I would be much happier paying $199/year for a non-crippled, effectively unlimited, and truly secure solution.



Moments of Clever – The Joy of Overcoming Minor Crises

There are too few moments when I feel like I get to apply anything like cleverness. With programming you certainly can, but it is always 1% extreme cleverness and 99% tedious plodding. This past Monday I got to be a little clever in the real world... It wasn't the extreme type, just a bit of very minor but satisfying cleverness. I was driving back from New England. About six hours from home the battery light comes on, indicating under-voltage. It was instantly clear the alternator was almost certainly the problem (or the rectifier/regulator within the alternator). The battery was losing charge. A car runs fine without an alternator, since the battery alone can power the spark plugs, fuel pump, lights, A/C, etc. while it still has charge. The car would run until the battery fell below 8-10v (at which point the spark plugs or fuel pump would stop working). So it was a race to see if I could make it home before the battery voltage dropped too low. Sadly by the time I saw the voltage problem it was already well below normal.

Now my car has a rather unusual device that I installed when I thought I was going to get into off roading more than I ultimately did. It has two full sized batteries rather than one, and they are controlled by a switch next to the steering wheel. I can run off one battery, the other battery, or both batteries. It was in the both position when the problem occurred, which meant that both batteries had been depleted before I knew there was a problem. But it still meant I had twice the watt-hours compared to a single battery. First thing I did was switch to the main battery only. That way I could keep going towards home and when that battery died I would know it and be able to switch to the other which would have enough to get me off the road and to a hotel or service station. A few miles later I realized I needed to conserve electricity to extend my range, so I pulled over and pulled all the most draining and unnecessary relays/fuses under the hood.  I killed my daytime running lights (which would be the biggest avoidable draw of current), killed my interior (door triggered) lights, killed the heating/ac, etc. Sadly I did a stupid thing and shut off the engine not knowing how long I was going to stop and forgetting that cranking the engine would use more energy than just idling for a few minutes. So when I go to restart I find the main battery doesn't have enough juice to start it up. I switch to the second battery, start the car, then back to the main battery to run until it dies (since the main could still power things once it was running).

About an hour later the battery needle has dropped well below 50% and the dash warning lights all illuminate, the battery is effectively dead. I quickly switch to the second and keep going. I realize I'm probably not going to make it but now I've only got about 3.5 hours left. I then come up with another solution to extend my range, I keep myself under-shifted, so that the engine is always revving ~30% higher than normal. I keep it in 4th gear doing 80 to keep the RPM up (but still far below redline), and keep in 3rd or 2nd when the speed drops for construction/traffic. Usually a failing alternator is still putting out something, albeit way too little, but keeping higher RPMs will help it put out more and slow though not reverse the battery drain. And on I went. The battery drain was non-linear, so I was doing fantastically well until I got within about an hour from home and then the voltage started to plummet. But, somehow I managed to make it home. I don't think I would have made it even five or ten more miles. The voltage was right where the voltage had been when the other battery stopped being able to keep the car going. The windows would barely roll up after I shut off the engine.

I love non-life threatening crises, they sharpen the mind wonderfully.  Whether it's car trouble, being locked out of your home, or what have you.

^ Q


Jetico’s BestCrypt Volume Encryption Can Lead to Destroyed/Damaged/Lost Data

With the demise of TrueCrypt I moved to Jetico's BestCrypt Volume Encryption solution, having used them years ago for container encryption.  Yesterday I made the horrible discovery that there was a serious issue with their volume encryption software that caused me to lose (thus far) almost all my data on a drive.  I then discovered the problem existed on every Best Crypt volume I had created, across two computers.

Something about the recent BestCrypt's Volume Encryption version  (I was using 3.70.09) was causing problems with Windows built-in chkdsk.  I did a chkdsk on an almost new external drive I attached last month and got dozens of peculiar error messages, many like "File record segment X is unreadable."  I thought perhaps it might have been related to having to hard reset the computer after it froze the week before.

Knowing it was a BC volume I did a quick Google to see if the error came up in relation to Jetico/BestCrypt keywords and didn't see anything, so I thought it was just a disk issue.

Now, I'm clearly partly at fault for what happens next.  I knew that chkdsk /f would modify the disk, so to be entirely safe I should have backed it up.  But as it was primarily a backup drive, as it was 3 TB, as I had no other larger drives available, and as I had never seen chkdsk make an otherwise working drive worse in ~20 years of using it, I decided instead to use Beyond Compare to create a snapshot of the disk (file names/dates/folder structure only) so I could diff the post-chkdsk results with the pre-chkdsk state and see what if any files were modified/removed/etc.  I ran chkdsk /f and to my horror saw not only the huge list of "File record segment X is unreadable." but also adding 1200+ sectors to the bad clusters file and message that chkdsk died with an "unspecified error".  My drive contents were almost entirely gone.  I tried to run chkdsk /f again, same result.

In the moments after I realized I bent the rules a bit and had some things on the drive which weren't backups so I'm very sad and frustrated about that. (I'm waiting on a replacement drive so I can image the corrupted drive and see if anything is salvageable with recovery tools.)

I then checked my other BestCrypt volume (my main system drive) and sure enough it reported the exact same type of error with chkdsk (I had the wisdom not to try and fix the problem this time).

I also booted up a desktop computer on which I had initially installed Jetico's volume encryption a month or so ago as a test prior to installing it on my laptop and found that it, too, reported the same problem. That desktop is not in active use and had been idle since shortly after testing. And that computer is almost a vanilla install of Windows 8.1, completely different hardware (years older than my laptop), very little software installed (TrueCrypt was).

I contacted Jetico and they responded that they had seen this:

Thank you for using our software! We apologize for the inconveniences being in place.

With BestCrypt Volume Encryption v.3.70.09 installed, the chkdsk utility may indeed act abnormally and report
multiple errors on the encrypted drives. The effect is very rare (we have received a similar report only
twice) and could not be initially reproduced on our test systems. We've already implemented a fix and
released the updated version of the program. Please follow the link to
download the setup executable for BestCrypt Volume Encryption v.3.70.10 Run the downloaded file and proceed
through the installation wizard to refresh your installation, no advance decryption is needed. Reboot is
required for the update process to complete.

After installing the new version I can confirm chkdsk no longer reports the problems on the laptop's main system partition.  But my trashed mostly backup drive is still trashed.  My files remain gone.

I think the problem BestCrypt had must be much less rare than they realize or admit.  It happened on both of the computers I installed it on, and there were relatively few commonalities (beyond both running Windows 8.1 and having had TrueCrypt installed).

Since I could find no results when I searched for the chkdsk error I saw and Jetico's BestCrypt Volume Encryption I wanted to leave some record of it in case it saves someone else data loss.

^ Q