Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Creepy Motel

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

“Hey! Pull over!” Bunny said.

We were in the third–or was it the fourth?–day of the Faffing: wandering around more or less aimlessly, not finding any genuine ghost towns but still having great success photographing the many and varied ruins that dot the Pacific Northwest like acne on a geeky kid’s the day before the high school yearbook photo.

We were driving along a long, boring stretch of road in–god, I can’t even remember what state we were in. Possibly Oregon. Or maybe California. Weeks on the road will do that to you.

“Hey! Pull over!” My ears pricked up. Maxine had become quite adept by this point at spotting interesting things from the road, and she rarely disappointed.

We pulled into an utterly deserted parking lot, gravel crunching under the wheels of the Adventure Van. The sign said Juniper Lodge Motel and Restaurant. The creepiness of the surroundings said photographic gold mine.

We hopped out (get it? Hopped out?) and cautiously poked around. The first thing Bunny found was a portable toilet of the kind you usually see in the backs of campers and RVs, that looked a bit like someone had been cooking meth or something else equally unpleasant in it. I won’t disturb you with a photo, because I didn’t take one (if I had, it would be exactly the sort of thing I might like to share, so consider yourselves lucky, O gentle readers).

The Juniper Lodge Motel had been built as three long, low buildings on three sides of a square, with the road making the fourth side. I’m guessing the gas station used to be in the middle, perhaps, though it seems that would be a rather unpleasant arrangement for one who was wishing to sleep while all night long, people pulled in to get gas.

We cautiously entered the first building, wary of collapsing ceilings, snakes, and drug-crazed gangsters, all of which seemed like they might be a distinct possibility. All we found were ruins.

The bar and restaurant–at least I’m assuming that’s what this was–looked like something straight out of a nightmare horror movie, perhaps a movie called Freddy Krueger Visits the 1977 Guide to Interior Design Bar of the Year or something. That orange! Those beams! That fake wood paneling!

Someone had been there before us, which showed that fears of drug-crazed, machete-wielding gang members perhaps weren’t so far off base as all that.

The rooms were spacious, once upon a time, even if perhaps I might not have chosen that particular texture for the fake wall paneling, if it had been up to me.

The building to the right as you face the motel from the road, where the office once was, had reached a quite spectacular level of decay, one that made us fear for our safety dare we even to venture within. Much of the floor was gone, revealing that the building wasn’t precisely built on what one would call a “foundation” in any traditional sense of the word.

Photos taken, we set off again. We had, at this point, a new Plan. It was a Plan ambitious in its audacity, that would take us into Black Rock Desert questing after a…well, that will have to wait until next time.

Some thoughts on changing the world

“My vote doesn’t matter.” This is a common call of the North American White-Chested Citizen, particularly prominent during election years.

This isn’t really a post about political participation, except that it kind of is. Bear with me.

There are rather a lot of human beings on the planet–almost seven and a half billion of us, at last count. That’s quite a big number. Even the smallest of actions, when combined across seven and a half billion people, can make for an enormous impact.

Problem is, each one of those seven and a half billion people individually feels they are not responsible for the cumulative impact of their actions. No raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

Back when I was a kid, I remember my father telling me to save money by turning off the lights when I wasn’t using them. I recall arguing the point with him, to the extent that I got a copy of the power bill, figured out what we were paying for electricity, then sat down and did the math about how much it would cost for me to leave the light on in my room all the time.

It turns out it really wasn’t much. The cost of lighting isn’t that great–one light bulb is barely a rounding error in the bill even if you leave it on all the time. Other things–the water heater, the refrigerator, the stove, the air conditioner–totally swamp the contribution made by that lowly light bulb.

He was unconvinced, but I think it had more to do with him not accepting the math than him not accepting the argument. Light bulbs are easily visible sources of power consumption. The water heater? Not so much.

So I went about my life for many years thereafter, not really caring if I turn the lights off or not, because they’re a drop in the bucket. Compared to other things I do, the energy I use for lighting is insignificant.

As CFL and LED lighting has become more common, I’ve cared even less.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just me.

See this? This is not you. You are not a unique and special snowflake, except that you kind of are.

I mean, yes, you are unique in all the world’s billions. Yes, there has never been and never will be anyone else like you again. And yes, there really is nobody else who brings what you bring to the table. So in that sense, you are a snowflake.

But all snowflakes have six sides. There are consistent and repeatable similarities between people. Whatever chain of reasoning you use to arrive at some conclusion, there are other people who use that exact same line of reasoning to reach exactly the same conclusion. So when you tell yourself “My vote doesn’t matter,” there are millions of other people–people who might vote the same way you do were they to vote–who say the same thing for the same reason. When you rationalize leaving the lights on because the amount of electricity consumed by a light bulb is so small, millions of other people reach the same conclusion for the same reasons.

Which means it isn’t just you. You represent a multitude. You follow in the footsteps of many others, and they follow in yours. The road you take to arrive at whatever you arrive at is walked by more people than just you.

And that means if you want to make fully informed and rational decisions–decisions that account for all the variables and arrive at rational, logically sound conclusions–you have to account for the fact that you don’t exist in a vacuum–that whatever chain of logic you use to get where you’re going, other people will too. You need to account for the fact that it’s not just you, that the inevitable reality of being a person among billions of others is that whatever choices you make, you make in the company of millions of others for the same reasons.

So, that means weighing the consequences of your actions as though it isn’t just you. The vote you cast, or don’t? The lights you leave on? Your choices are bigger than you think. They’re amplified enormously by the simple iteration of your reasoning applied across vast numbers of others. Think of the consequences of your choices in terms of millions, not just one.

No raindrop believes it is responsible for the flood. Each raindrop thinks “what difference do I make?”

I have resolved to stop leaving the light on.

The Strange Allure of the Superhero

Superheroes seem a uniquely American creation. There’s no other society I know of that’s invented the superhero as it exists in American society (Ulysses and Beowulf were heroic and larger than life, to be sure, but don’t really fit the superhero mold), and our love affair with all things superhero has made Marvel Comics one of the most enduring box office success stories outside of Star Wars.

Iron Man. Captain America. The Avengers. Deadpool, the funniest movie I’ve seen so far that involves multiple decapitations. The American moviegoing public is all about the superhero these days. That means the American entertainment industry is all about the superhero, and by extension, the world is all about the superhero, American cultural hegemony being what it is.

And doesn’t that seem just a little bit…weird to you? It does to me.

Superhero stories are the height of implausibility. Man gets bitten by radioactive spider, becomes crusading vigilante with superpowers. Man gets zapped with gamma rays and becomes, not dead, but crusading vigilante with superpowers. Man arrives from another planet to become crusading vigilante with superpowers. Man loses parents in a dark alley, spends vast fortune to be crusading vigilante with superpowers. Crusading vigilante with superpowers faces escalating series of evil embodiments with superpowers, bent on destroying the city the country the world the universe.

The stories are hokey, the characters hackneyed, the plots contrived and predictable. Why are they so damn popular?

Enter Captain America, stage left.

In the book Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence argue, convincingly, that the superhero is the expression of American religious mythology. Captain America was the first modern superhero, after all, and they argue that Captain America is the embodiment of the American ideal: a heroic figure, above the law and answerable to nobody, doing God’s work by defeating the forces of absolute evil through any means necessary.

This is the way the United States likes to see itself: invulnerable, invincible, morally pure, the vanquisher of all that is unjust, uniquely blessed by God, wielder of the holy sword of redeeming violence that cleanses the world.

And like the comic-book superhero, the United States must operate outside the law to redeem the world and purge it of evil. Superheroes aren’t concerned with Miranda rights or due process. The existence of the superhero trope is, by its nature, a vote of no confidence in the normal processes of justice and law. The superhero comes along to save us because the law is incapable of doing so, too feeble or too corrupt to stop the encroachment of evil. If the superhero must beat people up or dangle them off a balcony to save the world, so be it. If the United States must torture suspected terrorists, so be it. Only such purifying violence can bring about righteous victory.

People argue, of course, about what the “appropriate” use of torture is and what the acceptable level of violence is; a guy I know has, with a straight face, made the argument that if you’re willing to shoot someone and you think that’s okay, surely it must be okay to hurt him as well (by which logic, anything becomes okay–rape, dismemberment, mutilation–to someone you’re willing to kill). The underlying logic beneath all these arguments is that we, the forces of right and good, are entitled to commit acts of violence upon the wicked, and no laws or treaties matter. Ours is a morally pure end, we are sanctioned by God, and we must do whatever it takes to purify the unjust and the iniquitous through cleansing violence.

They argue in the book that this idea is rooted deep in the Puritan Christian history of the United States. Our ancestors came here because they wanted a place where they could build a paradise on earth, and if creating that righteous place in God’s name required wrenching the land from the natives by violence and had to be maintained through violence, so be it. The God of the Bible (yes, both books, not just the Old Testament) is completely fine with the violent application of holy zeal.

This thread of zealous nationalism, they argue, is still part of the fabric of American civil religion today, so deeply woven into the way we see ourselves that even people of no particular religious faith still accept its premises. We are good. They are evil. Law is weak and corrupt. The application of violence by the forces of good is the only way to bring about the destruction of evil. Those forces of good are above any law, answerable to none save God, and cleansing violence is always just.

The book makes a good argument, and I think there’s a lot of truth in it.

But it misses something.

The appeal of the superhero is not just that it validates our image as a morally pure country wielding the divine sword of redemptive violence against the wicked and evil. There’s another part of it, too.

Superheroes are, by their nature, an adolescent power fantasy. The invulnerable superhero, with superpowers and the ability to do whatever he wants, is the daydream of the person who feels disempowered and weak. Superman is bulletproof! And can fly! And see through walls! Batman is rich! He gets all the cool toys and beats up bad guys! The appeal of superheroes is deeply rooted in revenge fantasies and desire for power. Superheroes don’t have to take shit from anyone, and they have, like, totally awesome powers, man!

The prevalence of the superhero trope in social entertainment, then, shows a widespread underlying feeling of helplessness and disempowerment. The world is a scary place, and a lot of people–ironically, people in the most powerful nation the world has ever seen–feel disempowered. Terrorists want to blow us up! Other countries don’t like us! I can’t get a girlfriend! Boy, Iron Man would sure fix all that up. He can go get those terrorists where they live, and he gets hot girls, too! The superhero becomes an expression of the ego, a desire for power and control. The superhero has meaning and purpose. The superhero may brood–there’s a reason superheroes tend to act like angsty teenagers when they’re not smashing in the faces of bad guys–but ultimately, the superhero has a mission and that mission gives him clarity. The superhero applies power to solve his problem, and in so doing saves the day.

So on the one hand, we have the American monomyth: the United States is the agent of good and right, wielding violence to vanquish evil and bring about redemption of the world, transcending mere law to do so. On the other hand, we have the superhero as adolescent fantasy fulfillment, intoxicating because he offers an escape from our own helplessness. Put those two things together, and it creates the perfect soil for growing atrocity. We see ourselves simultaneously as hero and victim, all-powerful and powerless, the bringer of holy violence and the victim of malign evil.

The implications of that particular mix are quite frightening, I believe. The nation that believes itself simultaneously powerless and also called upon to deliver the world from evil through the instrument of violence is a very dangerous thing.

Apple vs the FBI: Whoever wins, it’s a mess

Apple and the FBI. It’s the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots fight that the movie Alien vs Predator should have been, but unlike Alien vs Predator, this one so far has failed to disappoint.

On one side, we have a giant tech megacorp that makes cellphones. Also other stuff, I hear, but these days mostly cellphones. On the other, we have the full force and might of the United States Government, in the form of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In between, we have: Terrorists! Encryption! Civil liberties! Donald Trump spouting off!

The Internet is filled with conversations about the spat, much of which are either not technically correct or overtly technical. It’s my goal here to try to explain a very complex situation in a way that doesn’t require a high level of technical mastery. However, this is a technical issue, so there will be some geeky bits.

The Background

Last year, a couple of assholes named Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik decided they were going to express religion of peace by blowing away a bunch of people in San Bernardino, California. They decided, you see, that something something holy war something martyr God, and something something kill people whatever…I don’t know or particularly care about the details, and they’re not really relevant here. So far, so boring: some yahoos think there’s an invisible dude in the sky who wants them to kill some other people, it all ends in tears–a story that’s been playing out with minor unimportant variations since the dawn of civilization. The FBI investigated and decided they were “homegrown extremists” (no idea if they were organic or GMO-free) and not affiliated with any other terrorist groups or cells.

This is the part where things get interesting.

During the investigation, the FBI discovered that the yahoos had Android smartphones, which they destroyed prior to going on their rampage of murderous idiocy, and that one of them had an iPhone 5C provided by the company he worked for.

This is the logic board from an iPhone 5c. Like all iPhones, the user data on an iPhone 5c is encrypted. You need to unlock the phone in order to get at its contents. By default, the phone is locked with a 4-digit numeric code. If you don’t enter the code, the phone’s contents remain encrypted.

You can’t just read the information from the phone’s flash memory, because it’s encrypted. The FBI wants to read the contents of the phone, for reasons that aren’t clear to me (if there was anything sensitive on it, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have smashed the phone before running off to kill people who had nothing to do with whatever grudge he imagined his invisible sky-man carried, like he did with his other phones), but whatever.

The FBI tried to read the phone’s contents, and discovered that the iPhone is actually rather secure. If you want to know the full details of how secure, there’s a PDF on Apple’s iPhone security here.

So they went to Apple.

This is where things get really interesting, and a lot of the conversation about the situation gets some important facts wrong.

The Problem

The iPhone’s files and such are encrypted. This is not simple home-grown encryption, either; it’s military-grade 256-bit AES encryption. It can not be defeated by any known attack. All the world’s computers combined would take about a billion years to brute-force the encryption, which is a bit more time than the FBI prefers to spend on this.

Now, there are some important things to understand here.

One is that nobody can break the encryption, not even Apple. Apple has no secret back doors or master passkeys to get at the contents of a locked phone, and that’s not (exactly) what the FBI is asking them to do.

The other is that the four-digit code you type into an iPhone is not the encryption key. The encryption key is made up of a secret, random number embedded into each phone at the moment of manufacture, combined with the passcode you set by means of some arcane mathematics that are beyond the scope of this blog post. Apple does not know the encryption key; they do not have a way to set the unique hardware number, and in any event it’s all tangled up with the passcode the user enters in order to create the encryption key anyway.

So here’s where things sit: The phone’s contents are encrypted. The FBI wants access to the phone for whatever reason. Apple can’t decrypt the phone. So what’s the deal?

The Tussle

The fact that the phone in question is an iPhone 5c is really, really important. If it had been a 5S or a 6, it wouldn’t matter, because Apple made a change in the inner workings of the later phones to prevent it from being asked to do precisely what it’s being asked to do.

So, here’s how it works.

iPhones run an operating system called iOS. iOS is digitally signed; that means Apple has a secret encryption key it embeds into iOS. The phone carries a special, immutable boot ROM that contains the decryption code for this key. If it starts to boot and sees an operating system not signed by Apple, or if the operating system is tampered with in any way, the phone refuses to boot. (This is different from and not related to jailbreaking an iPhone. Even a jailbroken phone will not boot a copy of iOS not signed by Apple.)

What does that mean? It means nobody on earth–literally–can make an operating system the phone will boot, except for Apple. If the FBI or anyone else tries to modify the iOS boot loader, the phone will not boot. Only Apple knows the key needed to change the iOS boot loader.

Now, a few other things you need to know about how an iPhone works.

If you type the wrong passcode into an iPhone, the phone lets you try again. If you get it wrong again, the phone lets you try again, but after that, things start getting harder. The phone starts introducing a delay before you can try again. That delay gets longer and longer the more you enter the wrong code. By the ninth time you enter the wrong code, the phone refuses to allow you to try again until an hour has passed.

There are 10,000 different possible combinations of four digits. If you can only try one per hour, it will take you more than a year to try them all. Good luck trying to brute force the passcode!

There’s another complication too. If you get it wrong 10 times, the phone wipes itself.

Here’s where the 5c thing gets important.

Starting with the iPhone 5S, Apple introduced the “Secure Enclave.” The Secure Enclave is a special chip (well, actually, it’s a special section of the processor chip) that has its own memory. It’s basically a tiny, highly secure, tamper-resistant computer.

The Secure Enclave keeps the phone’s decryption key in its own special memory and talks to the phone over a special-purposes, encrypted communication link. The rest of the phone does not know, or have access to, any information stored in the Secure Enclave.

When you enter the passcode, the phone sends the passcode to the Secure Enclave. The Secure Enclave says “yes” or “no” about whether the right code was entered. If the right code was entered, the Secure Enclave decrypts the phone. If it wasn’t, the Secure Enclave refuses to do so. It also starts a timer. While the timer is running, the Secure Enclave refuses to process any more passcode requests. That timer runs for longer and longer as you keep entering the wrong code. If you enter the wrong code 10 times, the Secure Enclave wipes the encryption key from its own memory and that’s it, you’re done. Trying to get at the phone’s contents after that means you’ll be banging away at it until the stars burn out.

But… This is not an iPhone 5S or later, it’s a 5c!

On the 5c, the time delay and wiping the phone are not handled by the Secure Enclave, they’re handled by the operating system. The operating system enforces the longer and longer delay and the operating system wipes the phone if you enter the wrong code 10 times.

The Secure Enclave is a bit of hardware that can’t be tampered with. But the operating system can be changed. So if you have an older iPhone, you could, in theory, put a different version of iOS on it. A special version, with the timer and the phone wipe disabled.

Except, oh no you can’t, because the phone will not run an operating system that isn’t signed by Apple.

So the FBI wants Apple to create a new version of iOS. A modified version that has no time delay if you get a wrong passcode and no phone wipe. And then they want Apple to sign it and put that new version of iOS onto the phone.

This will not give them the contents of the phone. What it will do is let them try passcode after passcode as fast as possible until they break in. Without a phone wipe, they can keep trying as many times as it takes. Without a delay, they can try all 10,000 combinations in days or weeks instead of years.

Of course, there’s an added wrinkle to all this. The FBI already has a copy of the phone’s data.

iPhones come with a subscription to Apple’s cloud service, iCloud. iPhone users can choose to have their data backed up to iCloud. The backup feature was turned on on this phone. The FBI asked for, and got, a copy of the phone’s data backed up on iCloud.

Unfortunately, the copy they got is out of date. They screwed up and asked the company that owns the phone to change the iCloud password in order to have a look at what was there. The company complied. The FBI looked at the iCloud backup. Then they turned on the iPhone. The iPhone couldn’t make a new backup to the cloud…because the password had been changed. The FBI thinks it’s possible there’s information on the phone that’s newer than the information in the cloud backup. They’re not sure, though, because…they can’t get into the phone.

The Rationalization

If an iPhone were a safety deposit box and Apple had the key, the government would normally just issue a subpoena for Apple to produce the key, assuming they didn’t just take a blowtorch to the box and be done with it.

But that’s not what the government has done here. They can’t subpoena Apple to produce the encryption key or the passcode because Apple does not have and can not get the encryption key or the passcode, and Apple has no magic backdoor.

So instead, they’ve turned to the All Writs Act of 1789, a law signed by this dude.

The All Writs Act is a law that allows the government to issue “all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” Essentially, it lets Federal courts issue orders to private citizens in order to accomplish legal ends. A writ was originally a written order given by a monarch to a citizen compelling the citizen to do something. The way it’s used in the All Writs Act, it’s an order from a court compelling a citizen to do something.

Like, for example, write a new operating system. Because the court says so.

The All Writs Act was signed into law before the Bill of Rights existed. The Bill of Rights would seem to put some limits, at least, on what the government can order people to do. In this case, the FBI thinks that ordering a company to write a piece of software is within those limits.

It should be noted that this isn’t a matter of commenting out a few lines of code and hitting “compile.” There are, for good reason, legal guidelines that must be followed when writing investigatory forensic software. These legal guidelines are necessary to preserve the chain of evidence and show in court that the software didn’t modify the information on the device being investigated. The standards are fairly complex and are outlined on this page on the Digital Forensic Investigator Web site.

Basically, the gist of it is the software must be documented, must be subject to peer review, must be tested on target devices similar to the device being investigated to show that it works and won’t corrupt, delete, or modify information, and must pass independent judicial review of its reliability.

So basically, the FBI is asking Apple to go to considerable trouble to build a new operating system, test it, document it, submit it for examination, and load it onto an iPhone 5c, for the purpose of allowing the FBI to keep trying all 10,000 possible passcodes until they finally unlock it. They’re using a law written before the Bill of Rights existed that authorizes Federal courts to issue orders to private citizens to do this. Basically, the All Writs Act says “the government can order people to do any legal thing.” It has zero to say on the subject of what constitutes a “legal thing.”

The Real Battle

The FBI wants Apple to create a new version of its operating system, with certain key security features disabled, and load it onto the phone so that its passcode can be brute-force hacked and the contents read. They’re not asking Apple to decrypt the phone; Apple can’t do that. They’re not asking Apple to provide the passcode; Apple can’t do that either. They’re asking for a new operating system.

Would this new operating system allow them to get at any locked phone? No, it would not. iPhone 5s and later models have these security features in hardware, etched in silicon on the Secure Enclave. A new operating system can’t change that.

So what’s the big deal? Is Apple coddling terrorists, like the FBI director implies and Donald Trump spouts all over Twitter from his iPhone?

No. As with an argument between two lovers that ultimately ends in divorce, this fight is’t really about the stuff this fight is about. This fight isn’t about a work phone that used to belong to a terrorist asshole and probably contains fuckall of interest to the FBI. The terrorism angle is a convenient excuse, because the word “terrorism” is kind of magic spell that causes a whole lot of people (including, bizarrely, conservatives whose entire political philosophy is built on the foundation of distrusting the government) to take leave of their senses and do whatever they’re told.

But this fight isn’t about this phone.

Washington is afraid of encryption. Much as gun lovers and survivalists love to think Washington is afraid of their guns (which is laughable in its absurdity–the military has way more guns than you do, Tex), Washington is afraid of encryption.

This fight has been a very long time coming. The government has always hated and feared encryption, even as it has invested tremendous resources in making encryption better.

In the early 90s, the US passed laws banning export of encryption products. I still own a T-shirt that was legally classified as a “munition” back then, and that you could be arrested on Federal charges for wearing outside the US or showing to foreign nationals, because it’s printed with source code for encryption software. Finally, in 1996, Bill Clinton scrapped laws against exporting encryption software, largely because they were hurting US businesses overseas, and besides, the Russians already had strong crypto because–surprise!–they had mathematicians too.

The fear of the Russkies has faded into nothing–there’s an entire generation now old enough to read this blog post that grew up with the Cold War being something you read about in history books, not something you lived through. Now, the bogeyman du jour is terrorists, or maybe pedophiles, or hell, why not both?

Police don’t like locked phones and encrypted comms, and Congress has been wrestling with what to do about that for years.

The government has mulled banning strong encryption. Not just the US government, but every government. China wants to ban it. France just debated banning it. India is planning to ban it. The UK wants to ban it. Congress has considered banning it no fewer than three times in the last two years.

The arguments are always always the same: If people can talk without the government listening, the terrorists win. Or the pedophiles win. Or the pedophile terrorists win. Law enforcement can’t do its job without being able to see what’s on your smartphone, because reasons.

Apple argues that if the government succeeds in ordering it to write a new version of iOS to help them get onto this phone, they will feel free to order it to write other software for them as well. Write us software to let us turn on this suspect’s cell phone camera and microphone remotely! Write us software to make copies of this suspect’s email! No legal principle exists that would limit the authority of the government’s ability to order Apple to do things like this.

And that’s a nice, cuddly government filled with the milk of human kindness, like the US government believes the US government is. If Apple has the ability to do these things and can be compelled to do so, the Chinese will really like that. Apple argues that if the FBI succeeds, it will basically have to create a whole new software department–call it the Department of Undermining Our Security Department–to handle the flood of orders coming in to write custom software to disable this or that or the other security feature. And they might be right.

The government says nobody else will get this hacked iOS version (or versions, if other requests start rolling in). Apple says that’s naive. Hard to say what’s scarier, the FBI with rogue Apple-signed iOS software, the Chinese with rogue Apple-signed iOS software, or rogue Apple-signed iOS software leaking into the hands of organized crime.

There’s also the very real possibility that if the government has success here, sooner or later it will realize that a terrorist using an iPhone 6 will still be able to secure a phone in a way that neither Apple nor the government can do anything about, and start calling on Apple (and other companies) to weaken their encryption. The Secure Enclave with its hardware timer and self-vaporizing key is pretty damn secure. What happens if the government decides to tell Apple to tone things down a bit for the iPhone 7? That’s not impossible, and if Apple can be forced to write a new operating system to help law enforcement, changing the design of their chips to help law enforcement is a doddle.

Encryption is math. Math is math; math doesn’t care about bad guys or good guys or legal oversight. If there is a way to slip past an encryption method, that way works for everyone, good guys and bad guys alike, because math is math and math doesn’t care. If it works for the FBI, it works for Igor in the Russian mafia as well.

So that’s what’s going on, and that’s what’s at stake. It’s a problem that doesn’t readily boil down to sound bites or Tweets, and that means, I fear, that the public won’t really understand what’s happening until it’s been decided for them.

Email Spam Re-revisited: How “mainstream” email marketers promote spam

Email spam–defined here as “unwanted, unsolicited commercial email”–is big business, with spam emails producing millions of dollars in revenue for the larger spam kingpins. There’s a huge cost to this spam, though. Google has released a PDF on the economics of spam, that talks about how much cost spam emails externalize onto others. Spam filtering, for example, costs about $6 billion a year, and without it, email would be largely unusuable.

Spammers often try to justify their spamming by claiming that email advertising is necessary to keep Web content free. It’s true that advertising is a necessary component of the Web–I wouldn’t be able to pay for all my Web sites without it. But as the Google report says, spamming is not the same as this kind of advertising:

How does spam differ from legitimate advertising? If I enjoy watching network television, using a social networking site or checking stock quotes online, I know I will be subjected to advertisements, many of which may be irrelevant or even annoying to me. Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Facebook, and others provide valuable consumer services, such as social networking, news and email, supported entirely by advertising revenue. While people may resent advertising, most consumers accept that advertising is a price they pay for access to valuable content and services. By contrast, unsolicited commercial email imposes a negative externality on consumers without any market-mediated benefit, and without the opportunity to opt out.

The vast majority of spam operations are run by a handful of spammers, the so-called “ROKSO spammers,” extremely prolific email spammers (some of whom are affiliated with organized crime, like Leo “Badcow” Kuvayev, a person involved in spam, malware, fake pharmaceuticals, and child porn and now in prison) who are part of the Register of Known Spam Operations.

There are also a lot of affiliate marketing companies–companies who pay affiliates to promote products. Some of these companies also run email marketing. All of them claim to be opposed to spam. But many are perfectly willing to allow spam, even spam by big-time ROKSO spammers, because of simple economics: it makes money.

I’ve blogged about one of these ROKSO spammers and his connection with “mainstream” affiliate and email marketing companies before. I monitor spam from this person, largely because I get a vast quantity of it to various email addresses. And when I say vast, I mean it–as in 839 examples of spam email in the last 20 days alone.

This particular spammer has a pretty simple modus operandi. He signs up for affiliate codes with “mainstream” email marketers and affiliate sales companies and spams, spams, spams. He tends to go for certain kinds of affiliate accounts: fake diabetes “cures,” quack “heart attack prevention” nostrums, right-wing conspiracy books, weight-loss fad diets, woodworking plans, and “get paid to do surveys” scams are his forté.

He’s worked with a wide range of affiliate companies before: Clickbank, Flex Marketing, and Clickbooth most often.

His spam activities slowed for a while, but recently have redoubled. And this new salvo of spam activities features two affiliate companies in particular: Clickbank and Cake Marketing. To a lesser extent, he’s still Spamvertising through AD1/Flex Marketing, but not as much.

He’s not foolish enough to spam Clickbank or Cake Marketing links directly. Instead, he spam links that are just 301 redirectors to Clickbank or Cake URLs, or open the URLs in a frame, to provide enough distance to shield Clickbank and Cake from direct association and provide a level of plausible deniability.

A few things have changed since I first write about this particular spam system, but the overall shape remains the same. The spammer, Mike Boehm, sends out millions of spam emails containing links to throwaway domain names. These domains used to be redirectors located at Namecheap; nowadays, they’re protected by Cloudflare, a name well known to spam fighters.

These domains are simply redirectors–that is, when you click on one of the links, you just get sent somewhere else. With these new spam runs, you end up either at a traffic redirection site owned by Cake Marketing, or at a domain that opens a Clickbank link in a frame. The new spam affiliate system is a bit different from the old one, and looks like this:

More than 90% of the spam emails–and like I said, there are a lot of them–go through Cake Marketing or Clickbank.

I’ve sent repeated complaints to the Cake Marketing and Clickbank email addresses, and received no reply. The spam affiliate accounts remain active. I expected this from Cake Marketing; to my knowledge, they never acknowledge spam complaints. I’m disappointed in Clickbank. They have terminated this spammer multiple times in the past, but appear disinclined to do so now.

Thereis an interesting postscript to this story: Clickbank has apparently established a reputation in the time since my last blog post on this subject as a spam haven. When I attempted to post this entry on LiveJournal, the following error message popped up:

Sex tech: Wave your arms in the air like you just don’t care

The street finds its own uses for things.
—William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Imagine, if you will, a device you strap onto your lower arm. This device has a bunch of embedded myoelectric sensors that respond to hand movements, and accelerometers that track arm movements. Yoked to these is a Bluetooth transmitter that relays a stream of data about your hand position and arm motion to a computer or smartphone. Sound exciting?

Meet the Myo, a gadget in search of a purpose.

It’s a neat, if pricey, device still in search of a killer app. It comes with a PowerPoint plugin that lets you flip through slides by waving your arm in the air. There’s an interface for Skyrim, though it’s a bit laggy and you can’t play for long before your arm gets tired. There’s also a bit of software that lets you control a small drone with arm gestures, though with less precision than a conventional remote control. It’s very much a “build first, look for a function later” gadget, reminiscent of many tech innovations from the age of the dot-com bubble.

In most industries, the “build it and they will come” approach to project engineering is looked at with less and less favor these days. I am a long-time mad scientist with a particular flair for designing and building all manner of high-tech sex toys, though, so to me “build it and they will come” is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

As soon as I saw a demo of the Myo, my mind instantly went to sex. Controlling a device remotely by gesture and motion? What could possibly be more fitting in a sex toy? (In fairness, I did once, many years ago, build an Internet-controlled sex toy called the Symphony—a name that might perhaps be more appropriate for a device that you can operate by waving your arms. Dance, my puppets! Dance!)

So imagine my surprise when I Tweeted that this would make a cool controller for a sex toy and shortly thereafter one showed up on my doorstep, courtesy of AV Flox over at Slantist.

Electronically, the Myo is a Bluetooth LE radio, a set of myoelectric sensors, a suite of accelerometers, and a low-power processor core running proprietary firmware. Information from the myoelectric sensors is interpreted and translated into a set of posture information. This information is combined with data from the accelerometer and transmitted as a series of gestures and motions.

Conceptually, it looks a bit like this:

The Myo communicates with a laptop or smartphone. The laptop or smartphone interprets the messages from the Myo, then sends appropriate commands to an Arduino with a Bluetooth board connected, instructing it to to run (or stop) a vibrator attached to the motor driver.

The Arduino is a small single-board computer that was designed to do easy experimenting with programmable devices. Think of something like a Raspberry Pi, only far simpler and without an operating system. You can get many additional boards for the Arduino to do all sorts of things—Bluetooth, WiFi, networking, sensors, motor drivers, and other boards exist. The Arduino and its add-on boards are designed to be stacked on top of one another, to make project development easy.

The laptop or smartphone is necessary because of Bluetooth’s design. Bluetooth is a computer-to-peripheral technology. A Bluetooth network uses a master/slave topology, which means a Bluetooth peripheral can’t communicate directly with another Bluetooth peripheral—a “master” device like a laptop or smartphone is needed as an intermediary. When I first started working on a Myo-controlled sex toy, I did the development on a Macbook Pro laptop.

The Hardware

For the first-generation version of the gesture-controlled sex toy, I opted to use an Arduino Uno with a Red Bear Bluetooth shield and one of Kyle Machulis’ Pen15 vibrator controller boards, largely by virtue of the fact that I already happened to have all of them sitting on my workbench.

The Arduino is a small electronics board, roughly the size of an index card, that’s easy to program and capable of talking to all sorts of peripheral hardware. As a controller for a sex toy, it’s a bit large and clunky. Combined with a Bluetooth board and a motor control board, the whole ensemble is about as big as a pack of cigarettes; not exactly discreet. There are several much smaller development boards available, and a later version of this project will probably be about the size of a quarter.

The Arduino, Bluetooth board, and motor controller, all stacked atop one another, look like this:

The blue board on the bottom is the Arduino itself, and contains the processor, power supply, and USB interface for programming. The red board in the middle is the Bluetooth board. The green board on top is the Pen15, an interface board designed specifically to run a sex toy from an Arduino. All together, this stack of boards cost about $40 or so.

The Software

Assembling the stack of components to make a Myo-controlled sex toy was the easy part. Writing the software turned out to be a bit more aggravating.

There are two parts to the software: a program running on the laptop (or smartphone, but for convenience I wrote the first version on my laptop), and a program running on the Arduino. The laptop software needed to pair with the Myo and the Arduino’s Bluetooth card, accept incoming data from the Myo, figure out how to translate those data into sex toy functions, and then send appropriate commands to the Arduino. The software on the Arduino needed to accept those commands and run the vibrator accordingly.

The Myo does a lot of on-board processing to figure out what hand gestures are being done, then sends the gesture data to the computer. It can recognize certain gestures, like making a fist, spreading your fingers apart, and tapping your thumb and forefinger together. It also sends information from the accelerometers, to report motion data.

For the first version, I wanted to keep things simple. I decided to look only at hand gestures, rather than arm motion. Making a fist, I decided, would turn the vibrator off; spreading my fingers would turn it on. (I opted not to control the speed of the vibrator, even though this is fairly straightforward for the Arduino to do, just to keep things simple.) This let me ignore accelerometer data and look only at hand gestures.

The Arduino software was relatively straightforward. The Arduino Bluetooth card comes with a programming library, which, much to my dismay, failed to work right out of the box. That’s surprisingly common in the world of Arduino development, where hardware and software is often designed by small groups of dedicated enthusiasts and may or may not work as expected the first time. An hour’s worth of Googling and some trial and error let me get the Arduino Bluetooth library working, and after that, things were a lot easier. I chose a command that would mean “vibrator on” and another that would mean “vibrator off,” and wrote a simple program that would poll the Bluetooth card looking for those commands and send the appropriate signal to the Pen15 board. All in all, the Arduino side of the equation took an evening to get sorted.

The computer/Myo side was a bit more complicated. The Myo I received was one of the first to ship, and the Myo’s software development kit was a mess when it was first released. (It’s still something of a mess now.) I had considerable difficulty pairing with both the Myo and the Arduino—something that wasn’t helped by the fact that Mac development is usually done in a language called Objective-C, and my experience with Objective-C is limited. It’s mostly like C++, mostly, but there are just enough differences to trip up anyone accustomed to C++.

I finally gave up on accessing the Myo directly and opted for a shortcut. The Myo comes with software that maps Myo gestures onto the keyboard, so I decided to make things even easier by going that route. I mapped an open-hand gesture to the letter ‘a’ on the keyboard and a fist to the letter ‘z,’ and decided to write the software so that it would send a “vibrator on” signal when it saw the letter ‘a’ and send a “vibrator off” signal when it saw the letter ‘z.’ I figured once I had that working, I could get more fancy and sort out accessing the Myo directly later.

It took a good bit of time to get even that part working. The software development kit for the Arduino Bluetooth card is, if anything, in an even more sorry state than the Myo SDK. It took a lot of hair-pulling to get the sample code to work properly, and it tended to break whenever I tried to modify it.

In the end, I did finally get it to work, after a fashion. It was (and still is) quite crude: it recognizes only two Myo gestures, which it translates into “run the vibrator at full speed” and “turn the vibrator off.” The software still has a maddening habit of losing touch with the Arduino occasionally, for no reason I can discern, but it works.

The test

I decided to try out the vibrator with one of my girlfriends who was visiting from the UK, where she lives. We had just finished a whirlwind three-week camping tour of ghost towns through the Pacific Northwest, a journey I am still chronicling.

We spent her last night in Portland at a hotel near the airport, and I thought, hey, this would be an awesome time to take the new toy for a spin, and maybe even get some video of the device in action. She thought that idea sounded splendid.

Unfortunately, the software had other ideas. As often happens, somewhere between being tested on my workbench and being tried in the real world, it decided to quit working. I debugged frantically while she lay naked in bed waiting. Eventually, she fell asleep, and the opportunity was lost.

Later testing would have to wait for a more favorable time. Eventually I was able to get it working again, but the moment to use it with her had passed.

The future

The current prototype gesture-controlled sex toy is quite primitive. Put together, it looks like this:

The hardware is still clunky. I plan to rebuild it using a DF Robot Bluno, which combines the Arduino and Bluetooth on a tiny board roughly the size of a quarter.

This should make it possible to create a discreet, miniaturized sex toy that can be worn in public. I have one of these sitting on my workbench, but haven’t had a chance to play with it.

Eventually, when I’ve made more progress on the strapon the wearer can feel and I have time to return to this project, I plan to refine the software, adding accelerometer control and allowing the vibrator to be controlled more precisely—perhaps by adding patterns to the vibration. (I have visions of doing a PowerPoint presentation at a business function while one of my partners sits in the audience wearing this device, as it responds to the same gestures I’m using to control the PowerPoint slides.)

Finally, I want to compile the control software for my iPhone, so I don’t have to lug around a laptop wherever I might want to use it. I can keep the iPhone in my pocket, where it silently listens to the Myo and sends signals to the sex toy.

The possibilities of remotely operated, Bluetooth-controlled sex toys that respond to wireless sensors, controllers, and other devices has a great deal of potential, especially if you’re a mad engineer like me. There’s rich territory here, just begging to be explored by intrepid adventurers. The early Myo prototypes are, I think, merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I can hardly wait to see what else is possible!

Two Chaosbunnies in the desert: Faffing

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

Fresh from the spectacular triumph that was Susanville, the semi-mythical old mining town on the end of an ancient and long-derelict road that nobody save Apple knows about (and boy, would I love to know how Apple added it to their maps!), we spent the next couple of days in a kind of Ghost Town Limbo. We had entered that period in our adventure I have come to think of as The Faffing.

It is a fact known to anyone familiar with the Great Northwest that the ruins of nineteenth-century boom town lie in scattered disarray across the countryside like clothing at a drug-fueled Roman orgy. Once you get into the desert of the Great Northwest, it’s difficult to swing a cat without hitting the remains of some old logging or mining building from the 1800s.

That is, in fact, exactly the point of our journey. Other countries, possessed of a less exuberant excess of rolling countryside that nobody much wants, or perhaps gifted with a more pragmatic approach to resource allocation, don’t have long-abandoned towns that just kinda sit around for a century and a half because nobody can be arsed to do anything about them.

And even in places where people do want to do things with the land, there’s just so damn much of it that if there happens to be an old tumbled-down log cabin or a gold processing building building of some sort, nine times out of ten it’s easier to work around it than to move it. So it stays there, quietly being Somebody Else’s Problem.

It’s this sort of neglectful attitude toward the dwellings of times gone that drew Bunny to the tour, as her native land of the United Kingdom of Britainlandia is, being on an island, much more conscious of making use of every square meter or hectare or whatever the hell unit of measure they use all the way over there.

So during The Faffing, we saw, and photographed, a great many tumbled-down buildings standing silent testimony to times long gone, though we were rather less successful in finding any real ghost towns. What ghost towns there are are often poorly marked, and the ones that are well-marked, we discovered, seem to be conspicuous in their existential absence when one goes to the appointed spot.

The Faffing was not a time of no productivity, but it certainly didn’t compare to the discovery of what was left of Susanville. Still, we did discover some pretty neat stuff as we wandered about aimlessly in the Adventure Van.

Like this abandoned building and rickety, half-collapsed footbridge over a surprisingly deep and treacherous creek, spotted by Bunny’s eagle eye as we drove down some county road or other.

Or this house, which looks like it ought to feature quite prominently in an episode of Scooby Doo. It was on the outskirts of some quiet little town in Oregon whose name I’ve already forgotten, but man, if I were a kid living in this town, this place would likely haunt my nightmares.

There are tons of old farm buildings lying in ruins all about the Pacific Northwest, some of which look like they might collapse into dust if some poor unsuspecting sod the next county over sneezes too vigorously.

We struck gold with this find, the remnants of an old one-room school building a couple miles outside the semi-but-not-really ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon. Bunny, as per usual, spotted it and said “Hey, pull over!”

The schoolhouse looks a lot Little House on the Prairie and a lot more “Outtake from an episode of Dexter” these days, which adds, I think, to the ambiance. It’s a cool old building, for sure.

We took a random detour from looking for old ghost towns when we spotted a sign pointing to a lava flow in an ancient forest, because, you know, chaosbunnies. The detour took us a lot farther out of our way than the sign suggested, but after quite a lot of travel, we did indeed eventually come to the ancient lava flow.

Oregon’s terrain has been shaped by catastrophic geology, much of it volcanic. Enormous seas of lava once covered quite large expanses of it, wiping out everything around them and leaving behind terrain that, millennia later, still looks kind of like a lunar landscape.

Where these huge flows of lava encountered forests, the lava encased the trees in solid rock. The trees died and disappeared, leaving these formations as their only remains.

We took quite a few pictures, but as this was only incidental to our real purpose (if indeed chaosbunnies can be said to have a “purpose,” as opposed to a mere intention) we did not linger long, and were soon off.

We found some more ruins, this time just outside yet another town whose name I’ve already forgotten but that seemed to be a regional freight transportation hub, judging by the astonishing number of large trucks that formed an unending stream of traffic through the town.

It really is quite astonishing just how many of these ruins lie about, being ruins. We stopped frequently to take pictures of yet another ancient relic of centuries gone by, sometimes to the consternation of state police who wanted to make sure that we hadn’t abandoned the van and headed off through the countryside with cameras and bunny ears and tea because we were, you know, like, in trouble or anything.

Just what set of unfortunate circumstances might force someone to abandon a van armed only with these three aforementioned things is not entirely clear to your humble scribe. Still, it is gratifying to know that people were looking out for us.

We still had some interesting random discoveries, and a few moments of stark terror, closing inexorably in on us, which I shall detail in later episodes of this chronicle.

I have a small stuffed hedgehog that accompanies me almost everywhere I go. Her name is Lilith. Those of you who saw us on the European book tour likely recognize her. Lilith rode on the Adventure Van’s dashboard during The Faffing, and appeared quite unfazed by the whole experience.

ISIS, WordPress, and insecure Web hosts, oh my!

It is a fact universally acknowledged that running a WordPress site is a dangerous thing to do. WordPress is often attacked by hackers, because so many sites run it and so many people are not good about installing security updates. The hackers will use the commandeered sites for all sorts of nefarious purposes: installing malware, hosting phony bank pages that they then spamvertise in “Update Your Account Now” spam emails, hosting redirectors that lead people to spam or porn or phish pages.

I get a lot of spam emails, and when they lead to phony bank pages I will often check the top level of the site that the phony bank page is hosted on to see what’s going on. As often as not, the phony bank page is living on a WordPress site whose owner chose a bad password or was negligent about updating, and got pwn3d.

So it was that I found a fake PayPal page and, when I checked the home page of the hijacked site it lived on, I saw something odd: the home page had been deleted and replaced with a message reading “HACKED BY DARKSHADOW-TN AND ANONCODERS”.

I didn’t realize I was about to stumble on a massive (and still ongoing) security breach at two large Web hosting companies, Arvixe and Eleven2.


Curious, I did a Google search for that phrase (hacked by darkshadow-tn and anoncoders) and found thousands of Web sites that had been hacked and defaced with that message. And I do mean thousands–nearly three thousand in all.

I started working through the Google list, visiting each Web site to see if the defacement was still present. I discovered that there were three basic types of defacement, almost all of them done to WordPress sites.

Some sites had their content removed and replaced with a simple text message.

Some had the content left alone, but the page title changed to read “+ADw-/title+AD4-HACKED BY DARKSHADOW-TN AND ANONCODERS+ADw-DIV style+AD0AIg-DISPLAY: none+ACIAPgA8-xmp+AD4-“. This appears to be a misconfiguration of the automated tools the hackers used to deface the sites; it seems the hackers were trying to insert this in the page’s body.

Some had a defacement message injected into the body of the Web site, usually at the top.

So, who are Darkshadow and Anoncoders?

Anoncoders is a loosely-organized group of Islamic computer hackers who use automated tools to hack poorly secured Web sites and deface them with anti-Israeli and pro-Muslim messages. They even have a Facebook page and everything.

Darkshadow is a group of pro-ISIS Muslim extremists who, like Anoncoders, often hack sites to deface them with pro-ISIS, anti-Israel, and/or anti-Western messages. They used to have a Facebook page, but it’s gone as of the time of writing this.

So we’ve got a couple of pro-Muslim, anti-Western hacker groups who generally use automated tools to hack low-lying fruit, such as WordPress and Drupal sites that are running old versions or otherwise poorly secured. So far, so ordinary–dare I say, even boring. These kinds of attacks are a dime a dozen.

I started making a list of hacked sites, checking who the Web host was, then sending emails to the Web host abuse address letting them know they were hosting hacked sites.

That was when things got interesting.

As I went through the results of the Google search, cataloging thousands of hacked sites, I started noticing something weird: all the hacked sites were on only two hosting companies. Roughly half of them were hosted by Arvixe, and the other half were hosted by Eleven2, an outfit that’s a subsidiary of a company called IH Networks.

That raised the possibility that this wasn’t merely an automated, script-kiddie attack against a bunch of low-hanging fruit, but a breach of two hosting company’s Web control panel software or some other weak link in the hosting companies’ software infrastructure.

I sent off emails to both Web hosts letting them know they had been the subject of a massive breach.

Unsurprisingly, neither of them responded. I say “unsurprisingly” because I have a long history of discovering massive security breaches at large, popular Web hosting companies that go unrepaired for months or even years.

I sent notifications to both of those Web hosting companies about three weeks ago. Upon re-examining the hacked sites today, I discovered, disappointingly, that the security problems have not been fixed and the sites remain compromised.

So I went back and looked at past abuse reports I have filed with those companies. This is my first contact with Eleven2, but I noticed that hacked sites I had alerted Arvixe to as long ago as last September are still compromised.

It seems there is a lesson here: Both Arvixe and Eleven2 have severe ongoing security problems and are more or less completely indifferent to fixing the problem.

If you use either of these Web hosting companies, I would suggest it might be prudent to examine your site carefully for security breaches, and to move to a different Web host as promptly as possible. It’s never a good sign when a Web host ignores reports that their servers have been breached by ISIS-affiliated hackers.

Some random late-night musings on profanity

When I was a kid, I had a little plaque with a poem on it hanging up on my bedroom wall. I have no idea who wrote the poem or where it came from, but it was there on my wall for so long I memorized it.

Never say die, say “damn!”
It isn’t poetic,
it may be profane,
but we mortals have need of it,
time and again.
And you’ll find you recover from Fate’s hardest slam,
if you never say die, say “damn!”

I love profanity. I’ll admit it. Supposedly “profane” language is language that communicates quickly and effectively, with lovely immediacy. It’s shunned because it’s particularly well-suited to conveying unruly emotions–messy, untidy emotions that some folks would like to pretend don’t exist.

But they do, and “vulgar” language is singularly eloquent in expressing them.

There is tremendous nuance in vulgarity. If I call someone a hopeless fuckmuppet, that conveys a different meaning than if I say they’re a hopeless fuckwit or a hopeless fuckhead. Each of these communicates disdain, to be sure, and in a far more visceral way than saying “I rather do believe that chap is quite distressingly incompetent at going about this business of life,” but those few syllables after the vulgarity carry a great deal of subtlety and differentiation.

People who fear vulgar language fear life, for it is a fact not easily overlooked that some parts of life are vulgar.

Call to the Lazyweb: Backup

I have a problem I’ve been beating my head against for a while now, and I’ve finally given up and decided to put this out there to the hive-mind of the Internet.

I have a laptop I want to keep regularly backed up. I have external hard drives that I use to do this, one that I carry with me and one that stays in my office in Portland. I use cloning software to duplicate the contents of the laptop onto them.

But I also want to do incremental backups, Dropbox-style, to a server I own.

I do have a paid Dropbox account and I do use it. (I also have a paid Microsoft OneDrive account.) But I’d really prefer to keep my files on my own server. What I want is very simple: the file and directory structure on the laptop to be mirrored automatically on my server, like such:

This should not be difficult. There is software that should be able to do this.

What I have tried:

Owncloud. They no longer support Mac OS X. Apparently they ran into problems supporting Unicode filenames and never solved it, so their solution was to drop OS X support.

BitTorrent Sync. This program is laughably bad. It works fine, if you’re only syncing a handful of files. I want to protect about 216,000 files, totaling a bit over 23 GB in size. BT Sync is strictly amateur-hour; it chokes at about 100,000 files and sits there indexing forever. I’ve looked at the BT Sync forums; they’re filled with people who have the same complaint. It’s not ready for prime time.

Crashplan. Crashplan encrypts all files and stores them in a proprietary format; it does not replicate the file and folder structure of the client on the server. I’m using it now but I don’t like that.

rsync. It’s slow and has a lot of problems with hundreds of thousands of files. The server is also on a dynamic IP address, and rsync has no way to resolve the address of the server when it changes.

Time Machine Server. Like CrashPlan, it keeps data in a proprietary format; it doesn’t simply replicate the existing file/folder structure, which is all I want. Like rsync, it has no way to cope with changes to the server’s IP address.

So you tell me, O Internets. What am I missing? What exists out there that will do what I want?