As always seems to happen when I move house, a piece of computer hardware broke for me during my recent house move. It’s always exactly one piece of hardware, like it’s a symbolic recognition by the universe that being lugged around, rattling around and butting up against one another, is not the natural state of desktop computers. Nor is it a comfortable journey for the hoarder-variety of geek nervously sitting in front of them, tentatively turning their overloaded vehicle around each and every corner. UserFriendly said it right in this comic from 2003.
This time around, it was one of the hard drives in Renegade, my primary Windows-running desktop, that failed. (At least I didn’t break myself, this time.)
Fortunately, it failed semi-gracefully: the S.M.A.R.T. alarm went off about a week before it actually started causing real problems, giving me at least a little time to prepare, and – better yet – the drive was part of a four-drive RAID 10 hot-swappable array, which means that every single byte of data on that drive was already duplicated to a second drive.
Incidentally, this configuration may have indirectly contributed to its death: before I built Fox, our new household NAS, I used Renegade for many of the same purposes, but WD Blues are not really a “server grade” hard drive and this one and its siblings will have seen more and heavier use than they might have expected over the last few years. (Fox, you’ll be glad to hear, uses much better-rated drives for her arrays.)
So no data was lost, but my array was degraded. I could have simply repaired it and carried on by adding a replacement similarly-sized hard drive, but my needs have changed now that Fox is on the scene, so instead I decided to downgrade to a simpler two-disk RAID 1 array for important data and an “at-risk” unmirrored drive for other data. This retains the performance of the previous array at the expense of a reduction in redundancy (compared to, say, a three-disk RAID 5 array which would have retained redundancy at the expense of performance). As I said: my needs have changed.
Fixing Things… Fast!
In any case, the change in needs (plus the fact that nobody wants watch an array rebuild in a different configuration on a drive with system software installed!) justified a reformat-and-reinstall, which leads to the point of this article: how I optimised my reformat-and-reinstall using Chocolatey.
Chocolatey is a package manager for Windows: think like apt for Debian-like *nices (you know I do!) or Homebrew for MacOS. For previous Windows system rebuilds I’ve enjoyed the simplicity of Ninite, which will build you a one-click installer for your choice of many of your favourite tools, so you can get up-and-running faster. But Chocolatey’s package database is much more expansive and includes bonus switches for specifying particular versions of applications, so it’s a clear winner in my mind.
So I made up a Windows installation pendrive and added to it a “script” of things to do to get Renegade back into full working order. You can read the full script here, but the essence of it was:
Reconfigure the RAID array, reformat, reinstall Windows, and create an account.
Configuration (e.g. set up my unusual keyboard mappings, register software, set up remote connections and backups, etc.).
By scripting virtually all of the above I was able to rearrange hard drives in and then completely reimage a (complex) working Windows machine with well under an hour of downtime; I can thoroughly recommend Chocolatey next time you have to set up a new Windows PC (or just to expand what’s installed on your existing one). There’s a GUI if you’re not a fan of the command line, of course.
Last week I built Fox, the newest addition to our home network. Fox, whose specification called for not one, not two, not three but four 12 terabyte hard disk drives was built principally as a souped-up NAS device – a central place for us all to safely hold and control access to important files rather than having them spread across our various devices – but she’s got a lot more going on that that, too.
Enough hard drive space to give us 36TB of storage capacity plus 12TB of parity, allowing any one of the drives to fail without losing any data.
“Headroom” sufficient to double its capacity in the future without significant effort.
A mediumweight graphics card to assist with real-time transcoding, helping her to convert and stream audio and videos to our devices in whatever format they prefer.
A beefy processor and sufficient RAM to run a dozen virtual machines supporting a variety of functions like software development, media ripping and cataloguing, photo rescaling, reverse-proxying, and document scanning (a planned future purpose for Fox is to have a network-enabled scanner near our “in-trays” so that we can digitise and OCR all of our post and paperwork into a searchable, accessible, space-saving collection).
The last time I filmed myself building a PC was when I built Cosmo, a couple of desktops ago. He turned out to be a bit of a nightmare: he was my first fully-watercooled computer and he leaked everywhere: by the time I’d done all the fixing and re-fixing to make him behave nicely, I wasn’t happy with the video footage and I never uploaded it. I’d been wary, almost-superstitious, about filming a build since then, but I shot a timelapse of Fox’s construction and it turned out pretty well: you can watch it below or on YouTube or QTube.
The timelapse slows to real-time, about a minute in, to illustrate a point about the component test I did with only a CPU (and cooler), PSU, and RAM attached. Something I routinely do when building computers but which I only recently discovered isn’t commonly practised is shown: that the easiest way to power on a computer without attaching a power switch is just to bridge the power switch pins using your screwdriver!
Fox is running Unraid, an operating system basically designed for exactly these kinds of purposes. I’ve been super-impressed by the ease-of-use and versatility of Unraid and I’d recommend it if you’ve got a similar NAS project in your future! I’d also like to sing the praises of the Fractal Design Node 804 case: it’s not got quite as many bells-and-whistles as some cases, but its dual-chamber design is spot-on for a multipurpose NAS, giving ample room for both full-sized expansion cards and heatsinks and lots of hard drives in a relatively compact space.
Anticipatory note: based on the traffic I already get to my blog and the keywords people search for, I imagine that some people will end up here looking to learn “how to become a hacker”. If that’s your goal, you’re probably already asking the wrong question, but I direct you to Eric S. Raymond’s Guide/FAQ on the subject. Good luck.
Few words have seen such mutation of meaning over their lifetimes as the word “silly”. The earliest references, found in Old English, Proto-Germanic, and Old Norse and presumably having an original root even earlier, meant “happy”. By the end of the 12th century it meant “pious”; by the end of the 13th, “pitiable” or “weak”; only by the late 16th coming to mean “foolish”; its evolution continues in the present day.
But there’s little so silly as the media-driven evolution of the word “hacker” into something that’s at least a little offensive those of us who probably would be described as hackers. Let’s take a look.
What people think it means
Computer criminal with access to either knowledge or tools which are (or should be) illegal.
What it originally meant
Expert, creative computer programmer; often politically inclined towards information transparency, egalitarianism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchy, and/or decentralisation of power.
The earliest recorded uses of the word “hack” had a meaning that is unchanged to this day: to chop or cut, as you might describe hacking down an unruly bramble. There are clear links between this and the contemporary definition, “to plod away at a repetitive task”. However, it’s less certain how the word came to be associated with the meaning it would come to take on in the computer labs of 1960s university campuses (the earliest references seem to come from around April 1955).
There, the word hacker came to describe computer experts who were developing a culture of:
sharing computer resources and code (even to the extent, in extreme cases, breaking into systems to establish more equal opportunity of access),
learning everything possible about humankind’s new digital frontiers (hacking to learn, not learning to hack)
discovering and advancing the limits of computers: it’s been said that the difference between a non-hacker and a hacker is that a non-hacker asks of a new gadget “what does it do?”, while a hacker asks “what can I make it do?”
It is absolutely possible for hacking, then, to involve no lawbreaking whatsoever. Plenty of hacking involves writing (and sharing) code, reverse-engineering technology and systems you own or to which you have legitimate access, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of software, art, and human-computer interaction. Even among hackers with a specific interest in computer security, there’s plenty of scope for the legal pursuit of their interests: penetration testing, security research, defensive security, auditing, vulnerability assessment, developer education… (I didn’t say cyberwarfare because 90% of its application is of questionable legality, but it is of course a big growth area.)
So what changed? Hackers got famous, and not for the best reasons. A big tipping point came in the early 1980s when hacking group The 414s broke into a number of high-profile computer systems, mostly by using the default password which had never been changed. The six teenagers responsible were arrested by the FBI but few were charged, and those that were were charged only with minor offences. This was at least in part because there weren’t yet solid laws under which to prosecute them but also because they were cooperative, apologetic, and for the most part hadn’t caused any real harm. Mostly they’d just been curious about what they could get access to, and were interested in exploring the systems to which they’d logged-in, and seeing how long they could remain there undetected. These remain common motivations for many hackers to this day.
News media though – after being excited by “hacker” ideas introduced by WarGames – rightly realised that a hacker with the same elementary resources as these teens but with malicious intent could cause significant real-world damage. Bruce Schneier argued last year that the danger of this may be higher today than ever before. The press ran news stories strongly associating the word “hacker” specifically with the focus on the illegal activities in which some hackers engage. The release of Neuromancer the following year, coupled with an increasing awareness of and organisation by hacker groups and a number of arrests on both sides of the Atlantic only fuelled things further. By the end of the decade it was essentially impossible for a layperson to see the word “hacker” in anything other than a negative light. Counter-arguments like The Conscience of a Hacker (Hacker’s Manifesto) didn’t reach remotely the same audiences: and even if they had, the points they made remain hard to sympathise with for those outside of hacker communities.
A lack of understanding about what hackers did and what motivated them made them seem mysterious and otherworldly. People came to make the same assumptions about hackers that they do about magicians – that their abilities are the result of being privy to tightly-guarded knowledge rather than years of practice – and this elevated them to a mythical level of threat. By the time that Kevin Mitnick was jailed in the mid-1990s, prosecutors were able to successfully persuade a judge that this “most dangerous hacker in the world” must be kept in solitary confinement and with no access to telephones to ensure that he couldn’t, for example, “start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone”. Yes, really.
Every decade’s hackers have debated whether or not the next decade’s have correctly interpreted their idea of “hacker ethics”. For me, Steven Levy’s tenets encompass them best:
Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total.
All information should be free.
Mistrust authority – promote decentralization.
Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
You can create art and beauty on a computer.
Computers can change your life for the better.
Given these concepts as representative of hacker ethics, I’m convinced that hacking remains alive and well today. Hackers continue to be responsible for many of the coolest and most-important innovations in computing, and are likely to continue to do so. Unlike many other sciences, where progress over the ages has gradually pushed innovators away from backrooms and garages and into labs to take advantage of increasingly-precise generations of equipment, the tools of computer science are increasingly available to individuals. More than ever before, bedroom-based hackers are able to get started on their journey with nothing more than a basic laptop or desktop computer and a stack of freely-available open-source software and documentation. That progress may be threatened by the growth in popularity of easy-to-use (but highly locked-down) tablets and smartphones, but the barrier to entry is still low enough that most people can pass it, and the new generation of ultra-lightweight computers like the Raspberry Pi are doing their part to inspire the next generation of hackers, too.
That said, and as much as I personally love and identify with the term “hacker”, the hacker community has never been less in-need of this overarching label. The diverse variety of types of technologist nowadays coupled with the infiltration of pop culture by geek culture has inevitably diluted only to be replaced with a multitude of others each describing a narrow but understandable part of the hacker mindset. You can describe yourself today as a coder, gamer, maker, biohacker, upcycler,cracker, blogger, reverse-engineer, social engineer, unconferencer, or one of dozens of other terms that more-specifically ties you to your community. You’ll be understood and you’ll be elegantly sidestepping the implications of criminality associated with the word “hacker”.
(I’m aware that I linked at the top of this blog post to the venerable but also-problematic Eric S. Raymond; if anybody can suggest an equivalent resource by another author I’d love to swap out the link.)
Verdict: The word “hacker” has become so broad in scope that we’ll never be able to rein it back in. It’s tainted by its associations with both criminality, on one side, and unpleasant individuals on the other, and it’s time to accept that the popular contemporary meaning has won. Let’s find new words to define ourselves, instead.
The language we use is always changing, like how the word “cute” was originally a truncation of the word “acute”, which you’d use to describe somebody who was sharp-witted, as in “don’t get cute with me”. Nowadays, we use it when describing adorable things, like the subject of this GIF:
But hang on a minute: that’s another word that’s changed meaning: GIF. Want to see how?
What people think it means
File format (or the files themselves) designed for animations and transparency. Or: any animation without sound.
What it originally meant
File format designed for efficient colour images. Animation was secondary; transparency was an afterthought.
Back in the 1980s cyberspace was in its infancy. Sir Tim hadn’t yet dreamed up the Web, and the Internet wasn’t something that most people could connect to, and bulletin board systems (BBSes) – dial-up services, often local or regional, sometimes connected to one another in one of a variety of ways – dominated the scene. Larger services like CompuServe acted a little like huge BBSes but with dial-up nodes in multiple countries, helping to bridge the international gaps and provide a lower learning curve than the smaller boards (albeit for a hefty monthly fee in addition to the costs of the calls). These services would later go on to double as, and eventually become exclusively, Internet Service Providers, but for the time being they were a force unto themselves.
In 1987, CompuServe were about to start rolling out colour graphics as a new feature, but needed a new graphics format to support that. Their engineer Steve Wilhite had the idea for a bitmap image format backed by LZW compression and called it GIF, for Graphics Interchange Format. Each image could be composed of multiple frames each having up to 256 distinct colours (hence the common mistaken belief that a GIF can only have 256 colours). The nature of the palette system and compression algorithm made GIF a particularly efficient format for (still) images with solid contiguous blocks of colour, like logos and diagrams, but generally underperformed against cosine-transfer-based algorithms like JPEG/JFIF for images with gradients (like most photos).
GIF would go on to become most famous for two things, neither of which it was capable of upon its initial release: binary transparency (having “see through” bits, which made it an excellent choice for use on Web pages with background images or non-static background colours; these would become popular in the mid-1990s) and animation. Animation involves adding a series of frames which overlay one another in sequence: extensions to the format in 1989 allowed the creator to specify the duration of each frame, making the feature useful (prior to this, they would be displayed as fast as they could be downloaded and interpreted!). In 1995, Netscape added a custom extension to GIF to allow them to loop (either a specified number of times or indefinitely) and this proved so popular that virtually all other software followed suit, but it’s worth noting that “looping” GIFs have never been part of the official standard!
Compatibility was an issue. For a period during the mid-nineties it was quite possible that among the visitors to your website there would be a mixture of:
people who wouldn’t see your GIFs at all, owing to browser, bandwidth, preference, or accessibility limitations,
people who would only see the first frame of your animated GIFs, because their browser didn’t support animation,
people who would see your animation play once, because their browser didn’t support looping, and
people who would see your GIFs as you intended, fully looping
This made it hard to depend upon GIFs without carefully considering their use. But people still did, and they just stuck a button on to warn people, as if that made up for it. All of this has happened before, etc.
In any case: as better, newer standards like PNG came to dominate the Web’s need for lossless static (optionally transparent) image transmission, the only thing GIFs remained good for was animation. Standards like APNG/MNG failed to get off the ground, and so GIFs remained the dominant animated-image standard. As Internet connections became faster and faster in the 2000s, they experienced a resurgence in popularity. The Web didn’t yet have the <video> element and so embedding videos on pages required a mixture of at least two of <object>, <embed>, Flash, and black magic… but animated GIFs just worked and soon appeared everywhere.
Nowadays, when people talk about GIFs, they often don’t actually mean GIFs! If you see a GIF on Giphy or WhatsApp, you’re probably actually seeing an MPEG-4 video file with no audio track! Now that Web video is widely-supported, service providers know that they can save on bandwidth by delivering you actual videos even when you expect a GIF. More than ever before, GIF has become a byword for short, often-looping Internet animations without sound… even though that’s got little to do with the underlying file format that the name implies.
Verdict: We still can’t agree on whether to pronounce it with a soft-G (“jif”), as Wilhite intended, or with a hard-G, as any sane person would, but it seems that GIFs are here to stay in name even if not in form. And that’s okay. I guess.
Until the 17th century, to “fathom” something was to embrace it. Nowadays, it’s more likely to refer to your understanding of something in depth. The migration came via the similarly-named imperial unit of measurement, which was originally defined as the span of a man’s outstretched arms, so you can understand how we got from one to the other. But you know what I can’t fathom? Broadband.
Broadband Internet access has become almost ubiquitous over the last decade and a half, but ask people to define “broadband” and they have a very specific idea about what it means. It’s not the technical definition, and this re-invention of the word can cause problems.
What people think it means
High-speed, always-on Internet access.
What it originally meant
Communications channel capable of multiple different traffic types simultaneously.
Throughout the 19th century, optical (semaphore) telegraph networks gave way to the new-fangled electrical telegraph, which not only worked regardless of the weather but resulted in significantly faster transmission. “Faster” here means two distinct things: latency – how long it takes a message to reach its destination, and bandwidth – how much information can be transmitted at once. If you’re having difficulty understanding the difference, consider this: a man on a horse might be faster than a telegraph if the size of the message is big enough because a backpack full of scrolls has greater bandwidth than a Morse code pedal, but the latency of an electrical wire beats land transport every time. Or as Andrew S. Tanenbaum famously put it: Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.
Telegraph companies were keen to be able to increase their bandwidth – that is, to get more messages on the wire – and this was achieved by multiplexing. The simplest approach, time-division multiplexing, involves messages (or parts of messages) “taking turns”, and doesn’t actually increase bandwidth at all: although it does improve the perception of speed by giving recipients the start of their messages early on. A variety of other multiplexing techniques were (and continue to be) explored, but the one that’s most-interesting to us right now was called acoustic telegraphy: today, we’d call it frequency-division multiplexing.
What if, asked folks-you’ll-have-heard-of like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, we were to send telegraph messages down the line at different frequencies. Some beeps and bips would be high tones, and some would be low tones, and a machine at the receiving end could separate them out again (so long as you chose your frequencies carefully, to avoid harmonic distortion). As might be clear from the names I dropped earlier, this approach – sending sound down a telegraph wire – ultimately led to the invention of the telephone. Hurrah, I’m sure they all immediately called one another to say, our efforts to create a higher-bandwidth medium for telegrams has accidentally resulted in a lower-bandwidth (but more-convenient!) way for people to communicate. Job’s a good ‘un.
Most electronic communications systems that have ever existed have been narrowband: they’ve been capable of only a single kind of transmission at a time. Even if you’re multiplexing a dozen different frequencies to carry a dozen different telegraph messages at once, you’re still only transmitting telegraph messages. For the most part, that’s fine: we’re pretty clever and we can find workarounds when we need them. For example, when we started wanting to be able to send data to one another (because computers are cool now) over telephone wires (which are conveniently everywhere), we did so by teaching our computers to make sounds and understand one another’s sounds. If you’re old enough to have heard a fax machine call a landline or, better yet used a dial-up modem, you know what I’m talking about.
As the Internet became more and more critical to business and home life, and the limitations (of bandwidth and convenience) of dial-up access became increasingly questionable, a better solution was needed. Bringing broadband to Internet access was necessary, but the technologies involved weren’t revolutionary: they were just the result of the application of a little imagination.
We’d seen this kind of imagination before. Consider teletext, for example (for those of you too young to remember teletext, it was a standard for browsing pages of text and simple graphics using an 70s-90s analogue television), which is – strictly speaking – a broadband technology. Teletext works by embedding pages of digital data, encoded in an analogue stream, in the otherwise-“wasted” space in-between frames of broadcast video. When you told your television to show you a particular page, either by entering its three-digit number or by following one of four colour-coded hyperlinks, your television would wait until the page you were looking for came around again in the broadcast stream, decode it, and show it to you.
Teletext was, fundamentally, broadband. In addition to carrying television pictures and audio, the same radio wave was being used to transmit text: not pictures of text, but encoded characters. Analogue subtitles (which used basically the same technology): also broadband. Broadband doesn’t have to mean “Internet access”, and indeed for much of its history, it hasn’t.
Here in the UK, ISDN (from 1988!) and later ADSL would be the first widespread technologies to provide broadband data connections over the copper wires simultaneously used to carry telephone calls. ADSL does this in basically the same way as Edison and Bell’s acoustic telegraphy: a portion of the available frequencies (usually the first 4MHz) is reserved for telephone calls, followed by a no-mans-land band, followed by two frequency bands of different sizes (hence the asymmetry: the A in ADSL) for up- and downstream data. This, at last, allowed true “broadband Internet”.
But was it fast? Well, relative to dial-up, certainly… but the essential nature of broadband technologies is that they share the bandwidth with other services. A connection that doesn’t have to share will always have more bandwidth, all other things being equal! Leased lines, despite technically being a narrowband technology, necessarily outperform broadband connections having the same total bandwidth because they don’t have to share it with other services. And don’t forget that not all speed is created equal: satellite Internet access is a narrowband technology with excellent bandwidth… but sometimes-problematic latency issues!
Equating the word “broadband” with speed is based on a consumer-centric misunderstanding about what broadband is, because it’s necessarily true that if your home “broadband” weren’t configured to be able to support old-fashioned telephone calls, it’d be (a) (slightly) faster, and (b) not-broadband.
But does the word that people use to refer to their high-speed Internet connection matter. More than you’d think: various countries around the world have begun to make legal definitions of the word “broadband” based not on the technical meaning but on the populist one, and it’s becoming a source of friction. In the USA, the FCC variously defines broadband as having a minimum download speed of 10Mbps or 25Mbps, among other characteristics (they seem to use the former when protecting consumer rights and the latter when reporting on penetration, and you can read into that what you will). In the UK, Ofcom‘s regulations differentiate between “decent” (yes, that’s really the word they use) and “superfast” broadband at 10Mbps and 24Mbps download speeds, respectively, while the Scottish and Welsh governments as well as the EU say it must be 30Mbps to be “superfast broadband”.
I’m all in favour of regulation that protects consumers and makes it easier for them to compare products. It’s a little messy that definitions vary so widely on what different speeds mean, but that’s not the biggest problem. I don’t even mind that these agencies have all given themselves very little breathing room for the future: where do you go after “superfast”? Ultrafast (actually, that’s exactly where we go)? Megafast? Ludicrous speed?
What I mind is the redefining of a useful term to differentiate whether a connection is shared with other services or not to be tied to a completely independent characteristic of that connection. It’d have been simple for the FCC, for example, to have defined e.g. “full-speed broadband” as providing a particular bandwidth.
Verdict: It’s not a big deal; I should just chill out. I’m probably going to have to throw in the towel anyway on this one and join the masses in calling all high-speed Internet connections “broadband” and not using that word for all slower and non-Internet connections, regardless of how they’re set up.
A few hundred years ago, the words “awesome” and “awful” were synonyms. From their roots, you can see why: they mean “tending to or causing awe” and “full or or characterised by awe”, respectively. Nowadays, though, they’re opposites, and it’s pretty awesome to see how our language continues to evolve. You know what’s awful, though? Computer viruses. Right?
You know what I mean by a virus, right? A malicious computer program bent on causing destruction, spying on your online activity, encrypting your files and ransoming them back to you, showing you unwanted ads, etc… but hang on: that’s not right at all…
What people think it means
Malicious or unwanted computer software designed to cause trouble/commit crimes.
What it originally meant
Computer software that hides its code inside programs and, when they’re run, copies itself into other programs.
Only a hundred and thirty years ago it was still widely believed that “bad air” was the principal cause of disease. The idea that tiny germs could be the cause of infection was only just beginning to take hold. It was in this environment that the excellent scientist Ernest Hankin travelled around India studying outbreaks of disease and promoting germ theory by demonstrating that boiling water prevented cholera by killing the (newly-discovered) vibrio cholerae bacterium. But his most-important discovery was that water from a certain part of the Ganges seemed to be naturally inviable as a home for vibrio cholerae… and that boiling this water removed this superpower, allowing the special water to begin to once again culture the bacterium.
Hankin correctly theorised that there was something in that water that preyed upon vibrio cholerae; something too small to see with a microscope. In doing so, he was probably the first person to identify what we now call a bacteriophage: the most common kind of virus. Bacteriophages were briefly seen as exciting for their medical potential. But then in the 1940s antibiotics, which were seen as far more-convenient, began to be manufactured in bulk, and we stopped seriously looking at “phage therapy” (interestingly, phages are seeing a bit of a resurgence as antibiotic resistance becomes increasingly problematic).
But the important discovery kicked-off by the early observations of Hankin and others was that viruses exist. Later, researchers would discover how these viruses work1: they inject their genetic material into cells, and this injected “code” supplants the unfortunate cell’s usual processes. The cell is “reprogrammed” – sometimes after a dormant period – to churns out more of the virus, becoming a “virus factory”.
Let’s switch to computer science. Legendary mathematician John von Neumann, fresh from showing off his expertise in calculating how shaped charges should be used to build the first atomic bombs, invented the new field of cellular autonoma. Cellular autonoma are computationally-logical, independent entities that exhibit complex behaviour through their interactions, but if you’ve come across them before now it’s probably because you played Conway’s Game of Life, which made the concept popular decades after their invention. Von Neumann was very interested in how ideas from biology could be applied to computer science, and is credited with being the first person to come up with the idea of a self-replicating computer program which would write-out its own instructions to other parts of memory to be executed later: the concept of the first computer virus.
Retroactively-written lists of early computer viruses often identify 1971’s Creeper as the first computer virus: it was a program which, when run, moved (later copied) itself to another computer on the network and showed the message “I’m the creeper: catch me if you can”. It was swiftly followed by a similar program, Reaper, which replicated in a similar way but instead of displaying a message attempted to delete any copies of Creeper that it found. However, Creeper and Reaper weren’t described as viruses at the time and would be more-accurately termed worms nowadays: self-replicating network programs that don’t inject their code into other programs. An interesting thing to note about them, though, is that – contrary to popular conception of a “virus” – neither intended to cause any harm: Creeper‘s entire payload was a relatively-harmless message, and Reaper actually tried to do good by removing presumed-unwanted software.
Another early example that appears in so-called “virus timelines” came in 1975. ANIMAL presented as a twenty questions-style guessing game. But while the user played it would try to copy itself into another user’s directory, spreading itself (we didn’t really do directory permissions back then). Again, this wasn’t really a “virus” but would be better termed a trojan: a program which pretends to be something that it’s not.
It took until 1983 before Fred Cooper gave us a modern definition of a computer virus, one which – ignoring usage by laypeople – stands to this day:
A program which can ‘infect’ other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved copy of itself… every program that gets infected may also act as a virus and thus the infection grows.
This definition helps distinguish between merely self-replicating programs like those seen before and a new, theoretical class of programs that would modify host programs such that – typically in addition to the host programs’ normal behaviour – further programs would be similarly modified. Not content with leaving this as a theoretical, Cooper wrote the first “true” computer virus to demonstrate his work (it was never released into the wild): he also managed to prove that there can be no such thing as perfect virus detection.
(Quick side-note: I’m sure we’re all on the same page about the evolution of language here, but for the love of god don’t say viri. Certainly don’t say virii. The correct plural is clearly viruses. The Latin root virus is a mass noun and so has no plural, unlike e.g. fungus/fungi, and so its adoption into a count-noun in English represents the creation of a new word which should therefore, without a precedent to the contrary, favour English pluralisation rules. A parallel would be bonus, which shares virus‘s linguistic path, word ending, and countability-in-Latin: you wouldn’t say “there were end-of-year boni for everybody in my department”, would you? No. So don’t say viri either.)
Viruses came into their own as computers became standardised and commonplace and as communication between them (either by removable media or network/dial-up connections) and Cooper’s theoretical concepts became very much real. In 1986, The Virdim method brought infectious viruses to the DOS platform, opening up virus writers’ access to much of the rapidly growing business and home computer markets.
The Virdim method has two parts: (a) appending the viral code to the end of the program to be infected, and (b) injecting early into the program a call to the appended code. This exploits the typical layout of most DOS executable files and ensures that the viral code is run first, as an infected program loads, and the virus can spread rapidly through a system. The appearance of this method at a time when hard drives were uncommon and so many programs would be run from floppy disks (which could be easily passed around between users) enabled this kind of virus to spread rapidly.
For the most part, early viruses were not malicious. They usually only caused harm as a side-effect (as we’ve already seen, some – like Reaper – were intended to be not just benign but benevolent). For example, programs might run slower if they’re also busy adding viral code to other programs, or a badly-implemented virus might even cause software to crash. But it didn’t take long before viruses started to be used for malicious purposes – pranks, adware, spyware, data ransom, etc. – as well as to carry political messages or to conduct cyberwarfare.
Nowadays, though, viruses are becoming less-common. Wait, what?
Yup, you heard me right: new viruses aren’t being produced at remotely the same kind of rate as they were even in the 1990s. And it’s not that they’re easier for security software to catch and quarantine; if anything, they’re less-detectable as more and more different types of file are nominally “executable” on a typical computer, and widespread access to powerful cryptography has made it easier than ever for a virus to hide itself in the increasingly-sprawling binaries that litter modern computers.
The single biggest reason that virus writing is on the decline is, in my opinion, that writing something as complex as a a virus is longer a necessary step to illicitly getting your program onto other people’s computers2! Nowadays, it’s far easier to write a trojan (e.g. a fake Flash update, dodgy spam attachment, browser toolbar, or a viral free game) and trick people into running it… or else to write a worm that exploits some weakness in an open network interface. Or, in a recent twist, to just add your code to a popular library and let overworked software engineers include it in their projects for you. Modern operating systems make it easy to have your malware run every time they boot and it’ll quickly get lost amongst the noise of all the other (hopefully-legitimate) programs running alongside it.
In short: there’s simply no need to have your code hide itself inside somebody else’s compiled program any more. Users will run your software anyway, and you often don’t even have to work very hard to trick them into doing so.
Verdict: Let’s promote use of the word “malware” instead of “virus” for popular use. It’s more technically-accurate in the vast majority of cases, and it’s actually a more-useful term too.
1 Actually, not all viruses work this way. (Biological) viruses are, it turns out, really really complicated and we’re only just beginning to understand them. Computer viruses, though, we’ve got a solid understanding of.
2 There are other reasons, such as the increase in use of cryptographically-signed binaries, protected memory space/”execute bits”, and so on, but the trend away from traditional viruses and towards trojans for delivery of malicious payloads began long before these features became commonplace.
Computerphile at its best, here tackling the topic of additional (supplementary) processors, like FPUs, GPUs, sound processors, etc., to which CPUs outsource some of their work under specific circumstances. Even speaking as somebody who’s upgraded a 386/SX to a 386/DX through the addition of a “math co-processor” (an FPU) and seeing the benefit in applications for which floating point arithmetic was a major part (e.g. some early 3D games), I didn’t really think about what was really happening until I saw this video. There’s always more to learn, fellow geeks!
Quantum computing is all the rage. It seems like hardly a day goes by without some news outlet describing the extraordinary things this technology promises. Most commentators forget, or just gloss over, the fact that people have been working on quantum computing for decades—and without any practical results to show for it.
We’ve been told that quantum computers could “provide breakthroughs in many disciplines, including materials and drug discovery, the optimization of complex manmade systems, and artificial intelligence.” We’ve been assured that quantum computers will “forever alter our economic, industrial, academic, and societal landscape.” We’ve even been told that “the encryption that protects the world’s most sensitive data may soon be broken” by quantum computers. It has gotten to the point where many researchers in various fields of physics feel obliged to justify whatever work they are doing by claiming that it has some relevance to quantum computing.
Meanwhile, government research agencies, academic departments (many of them funded by government agencies), and corporate laboratories are spending billions of dollars a year developing quantum computers. On Wall Street, Morgan Stanley and other financial giants expect quantum computing to mature soon and are keen to figure out how this technology can help them.
It’s become something of a self-perpetuating arms race, with many organizations seemingly staying in the race if only to avoid being left behind. Some of the world’s top technical talent, at places like Google, IBM, and Microsoft, are working hard, and with lavish resources in state-of-the-art laboratories, to realize their vision of a quantum-computing future.
In light of all this, it’s natural to wonder: When will useful quantum computers be constructed? The most optimistic experts estimate it will take 5 to 10 years. More cautious ones predict 20 to 30 years. (Similar predictions have been voiced, by the way, for the last 20 years.) I belong to a tiny minority that answers, “Not in the foreseeable future.” Having spent decades conducting research in quantum and condensed-matter physics, I’ve developed my very pessimistic view. It’s based on an understanding of the gargantuan technical challenges that would have to be overcome to ever make quantum computing work.
Great article undermining all the most-widespread popular arguments about how quantum computing will revolutionise aboslutely everything, any day now. Let’s stay realistic, here: despite all the hype, it might well be the case that it’s impossible to build a quantum computer of sufficient complexity to have any meaningful impact on the world beyond the most highly-experimental and theoretical applications. And even if it is possible, its applications might well be limited: the “great potential” they carry is highly hypothetical.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m super excited about the possibility of quantum computing, too. But as Mickhail points out, we must temper our excitement with a little realism and not give in to the hype.
So, I am a professional system administrator. It says it on my business cards and everything. Every couple of months, when I have to explain to the receptionist at the London office that yes, I do work here, and so
(My first hard drive for the Amiga 600 was second hand from my dad’s old laptop. It was SIXTY MEGABYTES. It held DOZENS of games. I would need over EIGHT HUNDRED of those drives to hold a 50Gb World of Warcraft install).
I remember my first hard drive. It was 40Mb, and that felt flipping MASSIVE because I’d previously, like most people, been using floppy disks of no larger than 1.44Mb. My second hard drive was 105Mb and it felt like a huge step-up; I ripped my first MP3s onto that drive, and didn’t care for a moment that they each consumed 2%-3% of the available space (and took about 15 minutes each to encode).
Nowadays I look at my general-purpose home desktop’s 12TB RAID array and I think to myself… yeah, but it’s over half full… probably time to plan for the next upgrade. What happened‽ Somewhere along the line hard drive space became like mobile phone battery level became before it: something where you start to worry if you have less than half left. I don’t know how we got here and I’m not sure I’m happy about it, but suffice to say: technology today is nuts.