Archive for the ‘ Culture ’ Category

Culture : Where have all the geekers gone?

peteI’m a geek. There I said it, happy now? I enjoy fiddling with technology and making computers DO things. Chances are, most of you reading this are geeks too, so some of this article may seem like I’m preaching to the choir, but please bear with me as I have a point to make. When I was 10, I started programming in QBASIC. Whilst at college I studied Maths, Higher Maths, Computing, Electronics and Physics. When I reached university I moved into Acoustical Engineering, studying Fluid Dynamics, Vibration, Acoustics, Computing, DSP and much much more. I am a geek. Probably the point that defines this more than anything else is the fact that I loved studying all those things and that today I miss the shear volume of learning that I was doing during my education.
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Culture : The not so virtual internet

peteThe Internet, the final frontier, where anything can happen in the safety of a virtual world protected by a barrier of anonymity and falsehood. Nobody gives their real name out on the Internet so it’s completely safe. If you meet someone you don’t like you can just block them. Never meet up with anyone you meet on the Internet. These were the so called unwritten laws of the Internet. All was tickity boo, until the little thing called social networking came along and changed the virtual world forever. The question is, is the Internet really so virtual anymore and is the Internet more real now that we’d like it to be?
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Culture : Come on Lan, let’s have a party

peteLAN parties.  Is there anything more exhilarating?  Probably.  However, few geeks can deny the certain “Je ne sais quois” that they feel in the belly of a damn good LAN party.  It’s not just about the games, it’s about the pizza, the beer, the company and most importantly beating the pants off your mates. 

I remember a good friend’s brother used to host LAN parties occasionally at his house, sometimes filling the place with an extra 14 people that used to suck the life out of the poor buildings electrics and fill the air with excitement and anticipation.  I’d lug my fairly decent, optimised, slender tower round to his house, only to find the place filled with the biggest towers, hard drives, power supplies I’d ever seen.  One guy in particular had a case which stood from the floor up to his waist, and he was by no means the smallest guy at the party.

We’d generally split the rooms to begin with based on who wanted to be in each team.  This always led to rivalry and jeering, envy, horror and shout upon shout of, “But you can’t go with Jim, cos you’ll beat the pants off us.”  Ok, so that quote was lacking some authenticity, insert some random swear words into it, and you’ve got a much more realistic idea.  The kitchen area would be filled with roughly seven people, whilst on the other side of the house, the games room, and two bedrooms would house the other mob.

“He mentioned that he had a date that night. When questioned about the venue of the date, one of his friends blurted out that he’d heard they were meeting online, in a game of Resident Evil 5„

Then the games would begin, slowly at first, as people tinkered with their machines, dropping in and out trying to obtain the best possible advantage.  Generally, at our LAN parties short of physically cheating, such as looking at an opposing players team, most other forms of advantage were permitted, removing textures from everything but other players to make them stand out, changing your FoV so you could almost see round corners.  Occasionally people would have to swap teams.  For the nonchalant of us that would mean uprooting yourself and moving to another room.  For the more hardcore, their entire PC would go with them, no one else was allowed to touch it.  By the end of the night, this practice would become less and less common, as either the teams evened out, or the players didn’t care which machines anyone used anymore.

It was during these games that I acquired a trait for which I am now constantly moaned at by my current set of gamer friends; inverting the Y-Axis.  I seem to recall at one early session, the overall master of all gaming showed me a few tricks.  One such trick was to invert the mouse.  He said I’d find it much easier, that it was more intuitive.  To be honest I totally agree with him, and liken my inverted mouse to flying a plane.  Push forward to go down, pull back to go up.  Easy.  Not so for my current set of friends who think I’m just plain weird.

So where did the LAN parties go?  It seems that people are having them less and less these days.  Sure there are still the huge corporate organised events, where thousands of gamers get together in intense two or three day events, but what about the little games, the local LAN parties.  From what I can see, they all appear to have almost vanished.  By and large, it’s probably the Internet that has had the most impact on this.  In the days that I used to play, Internet speeds were pretty dire, and that was if you actually had the Internet.  Couple that with the fact that most people only had one phone line, and the parents got a little narky if Jimmy was spending 3 hours tying up the line, and you have a recipe for not a very wide area network.

The Internet revolutionalised this.  The first game I played online was probably Red Alert.  The connection was diabolical, the speed sucked and tying to find someone decent to play with was like tying to wash your jeans in a tea cup.  As the speed of people’s connections increased, so did the capacity to play games reliably online.  Thinking back to the more recent times of me playing CS:Source online, the game play was much better, but there was still jerking of players and just general lag.  On a side note I love the way some gamers use lag to justify their poor performance.  “Why did you drop out Matt?”  “Oh I had to there was…eh…..too much lag.”  “Oh yeh?  That sucks”  More recently I have been experimenting with KillZone2 online and I have to say, I don’t think I have yet experienced any problems in the movement and reliability of the online gameplay.

With the Internet changing the LAN to a WAN, does playing multiplayer with people you know and love still have the same oomph?  In part yes, but overwhelmingly I feel a big fat no.  On the one hand it means you can plan tactics and talk to each other privately without anyone on the other team having any idea about what you’re thinking about.  This makes the, “Let’s gang up on Martin” rounds all the more fun.  However the whole spirit of it is largely lost on me.  The funny thing is I’m a geek, I don’t generally like to exist in large groups of people, but if those large group of people are also hell bent on shooting each other with MP4 machine guns in a virtual environment, then count me in.  Sometimes I just don’t want to play alone.  I want someone to be physically there talking to me about how they’re doing etc.

“I’m a geek, I don’t generally like to exist in large groups of people, but if those large group of people are also hell bent on shooting each other with MP4 machine guns in a virtual environment, then count me in„

On the flip side, the online era offers some distinct advantages and these mustn’t just be glossed over.  Sure, people are not there with you, but sometimes that’s not just an inconvenience, it’s a definable problem.  How do you meet up with someone you know in Australia to play a LAN game of Call of Duty, when you live in the UK.  Intercontinental LAN parties tend to be rather expensive, not to mention getting your all important PC along with you.  Do you really want to risk it getting beaten around in the belly of a 747?  I certainly don’t.  No, the Internet definitely has it’s advantages in this respect.  Not only can you play with people you know in distant countries, you can also play with people you don’t know and make new friends, often meeting tens if not hundreds of people a night, depending on whether you switch games often or not.

It doesn’t stop there of course.  One of the other main advantages of the online model is that of availability.  It’s inherently difficult not just to fit 14 people in one building, but to plan fitting 14 people in one building.  You have to consider dates, consult your diary, ring around, or in these days txt people.  “Are you free on the 24th?”  “No, sorry m8 got a new girlfriend and we gonna hang out for the day”  “Damn”  With the online model this doesn’t matter so much.  People can dip in and out whenever they please, and more importantly sometimes, more that 14 people can dip in and out during the course of the day.  You just can’t expect to have constant LAN parties, where as with online play, you can play whenever and wherever you like.

Sounds like the Internet is the bees knees, doesn’t it?  Well it is and it isn’t.  Forgive me for being old fashioned, but I like the physical touch.  The air always seemed so charged at LAN parties and if you came across a situation where your comrade John was standing with his face 3cm from the wall, you could always yell out “Oi John, where are you?” and wait for the reply “I’m just taking a dump!”  Seriously though, online gaming is just a different method of achieving the same thing, playing with multiple REAL people.  Some people prefer the anonymity of online gaming, welcoming the ability to hide behind an avatar, a virtual character, through which they can achieve things and interact with people in a way they just can’t do in real life.  Some people crave the attention they get from being #1 on the leaderboard, and dealing with the flurry of clan invitations.  Some people enjoy hanging out with friends, talking about their lives, and kicking some serious bottom whilst they do it.  Me?  I guess on second thoughts, I love a bit of everything.  I enjoy the online play, and I enjoy the LAN party.  They kind of go hand in hand for me.

As I was on the train today, I overheard a conversation between a guy and his friends.  He mentioned that he had a date that night.  When questioned about the venue of the date, one of his friends blurted out that he’d heard they were meeting online, in a game of Resident Evil 5.  After all the social nature of things is changing wildly.  Maybe I’m blind, maybe I just don’t understand things anymore, but it certainly seems to me that being apart is the new being together.

Culture : The tale of the inaccurate TV show


As I was finishing up my last article on the almost religious nature of the IT industry, I turned my attention to thinking about the next article. Some people say I should finish up the first one before I move on, that somehow letting my concentration slip at such a crucial time in a litterary masterpieces lifetime is both irresponsible and unforgivable. To those people I would like to say “Shut up”. I’m guessing that the amount of people that fall into that category are so insignificant that the crux of that whole rant was pretty moot anyway.

Man! Digression already and I haven’t even begun to describe the subject of this article yet. I was drifting in and out of thought about the media. I had recently been quite angered by a program which went out to the mass media which featured in a segment, some “hacking” (and I use the term very very loosely, perhaps attempted computer misuse would have been a better term for it) and detailing some steps with which to secure your PC against unwanted attackers.


To call the program irresponsible and deeply flawed is probably an understatement for me, but then I do tend to get pretty excited when something annoys me, usually leads to another article you see. However the program in question displayed a lack of responsibility by detailing information that lured people into a false sense of security. Chumps! I thought. It dawned on me then, why were they doing a segment on computer security anyway, their usual banter was fairly well confined to talking about gadgets and all things technologically niche? Hacking and computer security has gotten a lot of press these days, and in my opinion a lot of bad press. Most instances that are being attributed to computer security breaches are actually due to people being either a) stupid, b) careless, or c) a fantastic combination of both which probably resulted in them being fired quicker than selling fake memory sticks on EBay.

So what exactly does the media gain from this? They rile up society into thinking that hackers are everywhere, then give them false information about how to protect themselves. An example of this was the the program in question talking about how you should put a password on your Windows XP PC as it is then unable to be accessed by people unless they know the aforementioned secret password. Granted it’s a little better than the 98 days of being able to remove the pwl file which stored all the passwords to the user accounts. I mean seriously who would ever class that as a good idea? It’s about as secure as etching your PIN on to your ATM card. Oh I know how about making it really secure, let’s ROT13 the PIN number first* It’s a well known fact that the standard Windows login password, and standard Linux root password come to that, do absolutely nothing to safeguard the files on your PC. I knew people that at 14 were able to boot from a PuppyLinux CD to recover files from broken Windows/Linux installs, and I’m betting there are people even younger than that who know what they’re doing now.

“To call the program irresponsible and deeply flawed is probably an understatement for me„

People who advocate the use of a login password to “protect” their PCs data against a large number of threats should be taken aside and lightly beaten with a paddle until they discover the error of their ways. Obviously the more vigorous the beating, the shorter the amount of time taken to learn their lesson, however being an advocate of peaceful resolution, a light tapping would surely eventually give the desired effect, even if the result of all the tapping was mild wood burn leading to infection and finally blood poisoning.

1145921_86593494The problem is in effect related to my last article. Time. People want a quick fix. If you tell someone they have to read a 900 page manual before being able to properly use their PC securely, they are are going to politely tell you where you can stick your 900 page manual. However it’s all due to the fragility of our technologies. If we block off enough ports and lock down the OS enough, we obtain a secure system for your average end user and below. The problem with this is that the aforementioned system is so crippled that it’s usage is severely limited. We get to the age old trade off of Security vs. Convenience.

It’s a no-brainer really. Make a system completely open-ended and loose and it’ll have more holes in it than your old mans sweater. Start to secure it, and the usability takes a nose dive. The funny thing is, if I drew an imaginary graph of convenience vs security the graph wouldn’t do exactly what you’d expect. You might expect a nice linear relationship. As the security increases, convenience decreases. Then you hit a magical point I affectionately like to call, the point of subversion. You see, on the convenience axis there is a line, a threshold if you will, the end-user stupidity threshold. If convenience dips below this line, a user will take steps to make the system more usable to them. Oh how helpful, you may be thinking. Nine times out of ten, it’s not. The reason for the name, the point of subversion is that this is where users begin to subvert security. Let’s follow a case study…come on boys and girls, gather round…..everyone got their carton of milk and sarcasm suppression hats?? Excellent, then here we go.

We have a small company, we’ll call them Aturd Technologies. They start off with an office and 4 PCs. As the company grows, they introduce passwords to the system. The graph maintains it’s shape. Then they introduce access control, still the graph roughly maintains it’s shape. Then they mandate password changes every 30 days. Bingo. We hit the threshold. 40% of users are now incapable of remembering their password correctly, and so write it on a post-it.

We obtain our first tooth in the graph, and indeed in the mouth of the end user, determined to bite the IT departments loving and generous hand. The graph continues, security increasing slightly, users being educated, when Aturd Technologies decides to implement proxy servers. Another tooth, as users start to bring in home laptops. You get the general idea.

The key to this is education. Maybe this is what the media is trying to achieve. The problem is, they typically educate John Baggins with information about dangers and threats which aren’t so pertinent to him, ie threats confined to dealing with corporate security, and then try to fix the problem by giving some wishy washy advice which is about as useful as a sledge hammer made from cucumber pulp.

What we need is one of two things, a system that doesn’t break or get attacked (Never going to happen), or an end user that understands about all the avenues of attack and their associated mitigation techniques (Very few of these rare gems actually exist in the real world. Much more common is the “I think I know everything about everything, but I don’t even know what TCP/IP stands for really.”) So again we have to settle for a happy medium. For me anyway that means a) good solid education of users, without introducing false hopes, Product X isn’t the only “real” solution out there, and b) locking a users system down sufficiently well.

“Make a system completely open-ended and loose and it’ll have more holes in it than your old mans sweater. Start to secure it, and the usability takes a nose dive„

It extends into area of blame too. Recently I was on a train whilst a user was looking at a highly confidential report from their workplace. I actually contacted the workplace and made them aware of the issue. The person on the other end of the phone seemed far more interested in finding out who the user was, as opposed to what I had seen and how.

Unfortunately, we live in a dangerous world where security is all around us. It’s part of almost everybodies lives, yet how often people don’t understand the reasons why they have a rotating password, or a captcha on a contact us form. People generally hate doing something without understanding why. This is where a lot of education goes wrong in my opinion. To adapt a well known phrase. “Give a user security advice and they’ll use it, just for a day. But give them the understanding of what the guidelines mean, and they’re far less likely to put your bits and bytes in the hands of attackers.”

* Before I get a deluge of emails telling me that ROT13 doesn’t apply to numbers. What a surprise, I already know. It’s called sarcasm. There was another example of it in this sentence. Can you spot where it is. Answers on a postcard.