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Campus Activists From A Bygone Age

Writer and commentator Elamin Abdelmahmoud. There's a weekly CBC News segment hosted by Rosemary Barton called At Issue which I watch every week when I'm at my parents' house and many weeks when I'm not. It features four political commentators discussing recent events from Parliament Hill and sometimes getting into heated arguments about them. The panelist in the "lower right corner" rotates periodically but someone who watches for any decent length of time will see Elamin Abdelmahmoud in that spot. Elamin is the host of another CBC show and a writer for BuzzFeed who recently released a memoir called Son of Elsewhere about his family's experience of moving to Canada from Sudan. While I was hearing interesting opinions of his on and off for the last two years, it didn't take me long to find out that his undergrad is also from Queen's University in Kingston. But it was only last month that I flipped to a profile of him in the Queen's alumni magazine and began learning much more. The two facts that helped me the most sounded quite innocuous at first: that he attended from 2005-2011 and that he used to go by the nickname Stan. But this made me think more about whether I had ever crossed paths with him and it turns out the answer is yes. So now I get to have fun reminiscing about these exact circumstances and the wider cast of characters that they involve.

Checking Which Passwords Have Been Pwned

There is only one rule of Internet safety that all people know. Never send personal information to suspicious websites. If this is the freshman rule, then there is a sophomore rule as well. Even websites with good intentions do not always succeed at keeping your data safe. For the longest time, I expected this to leave me with absolutely no recourse if the companies in question decide not to publicize their data breaches. However, there is a wonderful service at HaveIBeenPwned.Com which can put some agency back in the hands of us users.

The maintainer, a security expert named Troy Hunt, keeps it up to date with information about hundreds of data breaches on major social networks, blogs and online stores. More ambitiously, you can also search for your email address (or your friend's email address) in order to directly see whether one of the accounts associated with it has been compromised. This is because Troy often obtains the precise databases that are sold by black hat hackers. But the benefits do not stop there. The best part of the site is a function to search for leaked passwords themselves. Whenever Have I Been Pwned knows about one of the passwords you type in, there can be no doubt that it's time to retire that password for good.

This is a function that can be used in three ways so I want to explain all three.

Time To Use Open Access Already

Plenty of high school discussions are easily forgotten, but I was just reminded of one from 2007. A bunch of us knew we would soon be taking science courses in university, but we were asking whether it was best to stay in the field or move onto something more applied. One thing I said was "I will keep doing research as long as I can put all my articles online for free." A friend of mine who has always been very well informed replied with "don't count on that." At the time, it was not clear whether a scientific career could reasonably follow that philosophy. But now I am thankful to say that it can. The friend I mentioned and I are both contributing papers to Open Access repositories and millions of people have joined this movement in recent years.

Last month, my campus had a symposium on some of the Open Access efforts happening in the surrounding area. I signed up as soon as I saw that it was kicking off with a documentary on Aaron Swartz. When people there heard that I was one of the school's physicists, they applauded us for being early adopters. This is a clear reference to the arXiv — the primary source for everyone in my field, which has turned publication into a pure formality. I cannot really imagine only learning what an author has been up to after peer review has finished. Another physics success story (ranked surprisingly highly for something I only learned about two years ago) is Living Reviews in Relativity.

But of course the talks did more than just suck up to these projects and bash Republicans. They taught me a few things about the journal ecosystem including areas where physics is no longer in the lead.

A Few Lifehacks

There might be other people like me who get nothing out of forecasted temperatures like 21°C, 28°C or 35°C. Do I look at weather often enough to know what 28°C feels like? Of course not. The temperatures I really want to see are relative ones: 2 degrees warmer than yesterday, 6 degrees colder than last Thursday and so on. The problem is that most weather sites blindly assume that future dates are the only interesting ones. They completely erase past dates that you could use for points of comparison. So I went looking for a site that "back-casted" and found Weather Underground. This is a site that I will return to because it has archives of temperatures for many locations. This got me thinking about other hackish things that I do. Maybe someone will find these useful.

Thank-You VLC

Something that caught me by surprise was the release of libbdplus which happened almost exactly one year ago. This filled a gap in the free software community that had been open since 2007 when the first BD+ discs came out.

The story here is that Bluray discs won the format war against HD-DVD because they don't just encrypt their files with AACS. They include a diabolical piece of self-modifying code called BD+ which gained an early reputation for thwarting decryption efforts. For many years, open source Bluray decryption tools only existed for discs that were BD+ free. Those cracking tougher nuts had to use MakeMKV and AnyDVD which kept the source code hidden thereby making important knowledge vulnerable to censorship.

In 2009, when I first heard about VideoLAN's plan to develop libbdplus, the lack of a git repository was suspicious. Why would a group known for prompt code releases in all of their other projects suddenly decide to develop one behind closed doors? Especially the most anticipated advancement since libdvdcss. Years went by and rumours of an imminent release became less frequent. Not only that, but other BD+ projects ceased development because they saw no need to duplicate effort. By 2013, I was not just accusing the developers of changing their minds, but causing outright damage to free software in the process. The end of December 2013, when they released libbdplus after all, was the time for me to take it all back. But hey, it's Christmas... a time to be pleasantly surprised!

Back With A Vengeance

My site has been down since mid-2013 but I finally got it back up about a week ago. Much has happened in that time (such as starting a new degree) and I plan to post some random anecdotes from the past year as if the down-time never happened. If you are worried about the site going down again, don't be. I am now paying $10 per month to Linode which is very organized. To make a long story short, Justin Hayes stuck it out well all this time, but after high school, most people just have too much uncertainty in their lives to be reliable web hosts.

Three Great Little Known Performing Artists

I have to make a plug for a few people that have exceptional talent. These are the people that I want to get tons of exposure so they can make a career coming out with stuff that entertains the shit out of me. And when I talk to my friends I will sound like a badass because I'll be able to say that I knew them before almost anyone else. They have more talent than most of the people in Broadway or Hollywood. One exception might be Christopher Nolan whose first film is still insanely good. Nolan would be on my list if he were still making low budget films. But he's a best-selling director now, so it's down to these three.

Ants On A Box

Two and a half years ago, I worked for a teaching program at Queen's that could help first year calculus students get extra marks. It was called Math Investigations and its purpose was to show interesting problems that students might not see in a regular class. As a third year math student, I could solve most of them in a brief sitting but one problem called "two ants" eluded us and it just happened to be the first problem we presented.

The initial setup showing where the ants are.

My partner for TA'ing that section was James McLean and we were later joined by Rob Wang. We downloaded problem sets picked out by the head of the program - Peter Taylor - and he also happens to list the ant problem first. The premise is that a 12x12x30 box houses a male ant and a female ant and they are located on the square ends. One is eleven twelfths of the way between the floor and the ceiling, the other is eleven twelfths of the way between the ceiling and the floor. One ant wants to meet the other by crawling on the surface of the box - taking the shortest possible path. If you read the solution we were given, you will see that it does not prove which path is the shortest or give a real indication of how one might do so.

A New Lease On Life For The Matrix Phone

The only mobile phone that I have ever owned is the Samsung SPH-N270. In 2003, when The Matrix Reloaded came out, 2500 of these phones were made and sold for $500 each to promote the movie. Mine is number 551. They were by no means the most feature-rich phones of their day but they may have been the coolest. Few phones are able to divide a community in this way. Everyone who knows about the N270 either thinks it is the ugliest phone ever or the sexiest phone ever. My opinion is obviously the latter.

The only carrier participating in the promotion was the American network Sprint PCS. Figuring out how to use the phone in Canada was a minor hurdle to overcome, but that is nothing compared to the hoops I had to go through to get this phone fixed. The phone is now 8 years old which is probably twice the average lifespan of a cell phone. The only forum posts about the phone that I have seen recently say something like "I used to use my Samsung N270 but now either the phone or the battery is broken." This happened to me but to make a long story short I found a company that is willing and able to do internal repairs on this phone and other phones from that era. That company is CellFix and they did an amazing job.

While I was stuck with a broken cell phone, I briefly considered doing what normal people do and purchasing something more modern (like an Android phone). But now that it is clear that my matrix phone is still usable, I will proudly recount my experiences with this phone and mention some tips to anyone who has one or wants one. It's not like I will stop using it any time soon!

The matrix phone on my desk.

Reaffirming My Own Existence

This site is under construction so don't judge me! Actually judge me all you want because a good site is always under construction. This site will contain many of my ramblings like pointing out chiasmus and if I put a decent amount of work into it, it might just have a small effect on someone's life!

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