Ada Lovelace Day

13 Oct

Today is Ada Lovelace day. Ada Lovelace has been described as the first programmer thanks to the work she did with Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine – you can read more about her life and work here. On the occurrence of her recognition day, much has been written about the problems faced by women in tech. My colleague Caroline Preece has written an excellent article about this for IT Pro, which you can read here.

But the problems raised extend beyond the world of tech, and start well before women enter the workplace, or university, or school, because this is a problem of gender stereotyping, and gender stereotyping is an endemic part of our society.

Gender stereotyping dictates, through tiny, almost imperceptible pressures, to behave one way or another, to conform, across life. These tell us that, in medicine, women are nurses and men are surgeons. In automotive, women drive little hatchbacks while men drive powerful sports cars. It is men who design and build vehicles, we are told, not women.

In tech, this manifests as women being simple consumers of technology, who are confused and confounded by innovation. Men, on the other had, are the pioneers – they create, they command, and they dominate the sector.

Women, these stereotypes tell us, are passive, while men are active.

We are fed this story every day, from cradle to grave, through received wisdom, advertising, literature, music and expectations. And this is to the detriment of everyone – men suffer equally when they are forced into these compartments.

The expectations placed on both men and women, little by little, build the glass ceiling, the roles that constrain us and the belief that someone breaking these rules is not a pioneer, but is naturally not as good as someone stereotyped into them. And, for women in particular it seems, are therefore worth less.

Challenging these stereotypes is an act of subversion, but a necessary one. Breaking down walls benefits everyone – everyone.

The women’s fight is also the men’s fight, it’s the country’s fight.

So, happy Ada Lovelace Day and let’s all take up the struggle, not just in tech, but everywhere.

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No, screw YOU, dad! : Assassin’s Creed III, or Angst in a time of civil war

23 Jan

So I finally got round to buying Assassin’s Creed III (which I would have bought sooner had certain retailers not pushed the price up to £50 in the run up to Christmas) and have completed the main story, as well as the majority of the side missions.

It wasn’t just the inflated price that had held me off buying the game before Boxing Day, though. I had heard some pretty negative stuff around AC:3 and had been thoroughly disappointed by AC: Revelations.

I don’t regret buying it per se and may go back an play it again. But it is by no means a perfect game and I can see how some of the issues were a deal-breaker for some people.

So, without further ado, and without too many spoilers, here are some of my thoughts on AC:3

A tale of two daddies

Like its predecessors, AC:3 has two protagonists. Desmond Miles, the ‘present day’ playable character, has been with us since the original Assassin’s Creed. New to this game is Ratohnhake:ton Kenway, more commonly known as Connor.

The stories of the two young Assassins mirror each other in that both have serious dad issues. While Desmond ran away from his seemingly abusive and certainly controlling father, Connor’s father abandoned his mother before his birth.

Both are re-united with their respective fathers at a similar age (around 25), forming uneasy alliances with them for ‘the greater good’.

This could be an effective plot tool, except it is a story that has been done to death in literature, film and games since the time of the Ancient Greeks and has generally been done better.

Part of what made Ezio’s story so compelling (RIP) is that he loved his father (and brothers). The treachery that led to his family being hanged in front of him is what underpinned his story. It made his desire for revenge understandable and, as you had lived it along with him, was what drew you into the game.

Even Altaïr’s story of having little contact and no relationship with h

is parents was more compelling, even if you don’t find out about it until Assassin’s Creed II.

Connor and Desmond’s “No, screw YOU, Dad!” attitude is boring and petulance is not an ingratiating character trait. Speaking of which…

The incredible sulk

A lot of reviews I had read of the game prior to playing it myself complained that Connor’s character was under or undeveloped. However, I disagree. The problem with Connor isn’t that his character is undeveloped, as was the case with Altaïr in AC:1, it is that he just isn’t very likeable.

Connor: Deep and brooding. Or possibly just annoying

All we see of him is someone who is moody and sullen. He has an ok relationship with the people who work on the Davenport Homestead, where he lives, but that’s about it. He behaves like a stroppy teenager around his mentor and has a utilitarian relationship with his father.

The only other meaningful relationship he has in over 10 hours of gameplay is with his best friend, who we only meet a couple of times and even then it is brief. Oh and eventually we kill him.

There is no other family, really, and no friends or close allies to show us why we should like or care about Connor.

This, to my mind, is one of Ubisoft’s biggest mistakes in the game. It is very well to make your protagonist an outsider, but you need to tell us why we should care about him – something I thought had been realised in AC: Revelations, when we got to play a more meaningful Altaïr. Which is funny, because in many ways Connor reminds me of AC:1, right down to the inexpressive, kind of monotonous voice (I even went online to see if they had used the same voice actor!). This is not a good thing.

Attention! Here be spoilers!

If you haven’t yet played the game the whole way through and don’t want to know what happens, look away now! If you don’t care, read on for my biggest gripe.

When I’m playing a game, particularly an RPG, the storyline is very important to me. It’s one of the reasons I have played Deus Ex: Human Revolution so many times.

As such, I really bought into the whole ‘Ones Who Came Before’ Storyline, which, really, is Desmond’s storyline. He is AC’s Messiah, a unique confluence of bloodlines and the only one who can save the world from the impending Apocalypse.

The rest is up to you, Desmond

After such a build-up, you would expect Ubisoft to have him do something AMAZING to save the world.

But instead they have him touch a magic crystal ball and, er, die.

That’s it.

This is frustrating on a lot of levels, so I will start at the point of dear Desmond’s demise and work backwards.

You have two choices… except you don’t

Minerva turns up and reveals everything you have been working towards for the past 10 hours is basically a con carried out by Juno.

She also Chastises you for the war between the Templars and the Assassins, despite having been the first to indicate that Desmond is The One To Save All Mankind.

She gives you two choices: touch the crystal ball, freeing Juno (a scret tyrant) and saving humanity, but dying in the process. Or keep your hands to yourself, let the world burn and begin afresh with a handful of survivors, although eventually people will twist your words and there will be religious wars and executions because humanity is dumb and condemned to repeat its mistakes.

Which do you choose?

Well, actually, that doesn’t matter – Desmond chooses for you.

Save world, free tyrannical, misanthropic ancient humanoid deity, leave someone else to sort out the mess because who cares? You are dead.

This lack of agency on the part of the player frustrates me (and many others) immensely.

However, the feeling of “Really? Is that it?” is not the end of my frustrations.

Remember this scene from AC: Brotherhood?

Subject 16 (aka Clay Kazmarek)’s message sure is cryptic. However, these are my key points:

It’s far later than you know. Too late to save themEverything you hope to become, everything you hold dear, it’s already gone” – to me this sounds more like “there is nothing you can do to avert the end of the world” than “you gonna die”.

But that’s still not the bit that really gets me. It’s this:

The Sun… your son”

Yeah Desmond! Your son! He’s really important! Oh, whoops, you’re dead. Hmmm.

Eden. She…in Eden. Find Eve. The key. Her DNA…

Save the world, Desmond! Find Eve and save the world! Oh. Yeah. Once again, er, you’re dead.

Hmmm.

My question is, why bother with these cryptic clues, The Truth, any of it if YOU ARE JUST GOING TO KILL EVERYONE?

And I mean everyone:

  • Subject 16 is dead (for real now)
  • Lucy is dead
  • Daniel Cross, who should have features more prominently from at least Brotherhood, is dead
  • Vidik is dead
  • Minerva is dead (for real now)
  • Jupiter is dead (for real now)

And of course Desmond is dead too.

Speaking of Lucy, Ubisoft went in for an extra spot of historical revisionism with here. Remember how in Brotherhood you were forced to kill her by Juno?

Well in AC:3 apparently you were complicit. You knew she was no good and would help the Templars with their plan to subjugate the world, so you killed her.

Riiight.

And Juno also mentions Desmond’s as yet un met female companion who would accompany him through the gate. Who is she? I guess we’ll never know. Because he’s dead.

All in all, I am disappointed with AC:3 – even more than I was with AC: Revelations. Yet it is the only game I have ever actually applauded (the reveal with Haytham was a stroke of genius) and I really enjoyed the naval missions. But over all it was confused, unfaithful to its own source material with characters who are either annoying or really, terminally stupid.

Assassin’s Creed may be a phenomenally successful franchise, but you can’t just take your audience for granted.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

There won’t be a third time.

What is cloud?

27 Oct

So about four months ago I started a new job as a staff writer at Cloud Pro and have since been inundated with LITERALLY 10 requests to explain what on earth it is I do each day. Or more specifically, what I write about.

Cloud computing. You’ve possibly heard of it, you almost certainly use it, either at work or, more likely, in your personal life. But what is it?

That, dear reader is harder to pin down than you might think. But we can start somewhere easy – What does The Cloud look like?

Well it’s not quite as fluffy, light or moist as the name may have led you to believe.

A cloud, but not THE cloud

 

In fact, it looks a lot more like this:

this is more like it

 

That is a picture of a data centre, and it is data centres that power the cloud. Big ones. In fact their size and energy consumption is a big bone of contention.

 

So that’s grand but what do they do? And why should you care?

Well I’m glad you asked. Generally, NIST’s definition is accepted as the industry standard, and you can read that here. But I’m more interested, and I’m sure you’re more interested, in what it means for you in your day-to-day life.

I said at the beginning of this post that you almost certainly use cloud and it’s true – you just might not have heard it called that before. But I’m sure you recognise these guys:

 

 

 

 

 
And maybe also these:

 

 

 

 

 

And probably some of these guys too:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s right friend, you’re already one of us.

 

A nebulous banquet

As a consumer, you only consume part of the cloud buffet. The tasty little morsels that make your online and computer facing life better, easier and more fun – not the hulking great slabs that are used in business. You’re sampling the cloud vol au vents, they’ve gone straight for the beef wellington.

In technical terms, your little canapés form part of the SaaS and light IaaS parts of what the cloud has to offer.

SaaS, or ‘software-as-a-service’, are effectively online applications like Gmail, Steam or Facebook. They provide some kind of service for a thing you want to do (email, gaming, sharing pictures of cats with lolspeak captions) and they store all the data for you.

Think about it. You’ve uploaded your pictures, thoughts, lols and lunch to Facebook and you can now access all those things from any computer/phone/tablet with an internet connection. They’re not stored on your computer, so where are they?

That’s right, baby

 

IaaS, or ‘infrastructure-as-a-service’, is more towards the beef wellington end of the spectrum and is a big thing for companies looking to reduce overheads and streamline efficiencies and shift paradigms etc. What does it have to do with you then? Well, you see, if you have an account with Dropbox or iCloud or Skydrive, to name but three examples, where you store your data and use an application downloaded onto your ‘device’ to access it, you are using IaaS cloud storage.

Mad, yeah? But it doesn’t stop there. If you have a website, you could well be using IaaS cloud hosting to, well, host it. Collaborating on documents online, with something like Google Docs? Also cloud.

The key thing about cloud is that all that data you generate is held remotely, to be accessed by a (normally) secure internet connection. It isn’t stored on your computer – or in the case of things like Dropbox it isn’t *just* stored on your computer, it’s stored in somebody else’s data centre – probably in America.

So, what is it that I do then? Well I guess it could be summed up like this: I write about the different ways in which people and businesses interact with their data when it’s not physically in their possession. The challenges they face, the new products they are being offered and the way this technology, or group of technologies, is influencing the how we interact with our documents and each other, without most of us even realising what is going on.

(copyright XKCD)

The Olympic Missile Crisis

2 May

Seems like a sensible rooftop adornment

If you are in the UK, you are probably aware by now that being awarded the Olympics is apparently the equivalent of issuing some kind of giant “come at me bro” to all the terrorist organisations and deranged individuals in the world.

It is also unlikely to have escaped your attention that, having painted a giant target on the country, the way to deal with this threat is to deploy surface to air missiles in some of the most densely populated areas of London, the most populous city in Europe.

I’m not quite sure why the government has engaged in this strange and polarised rhetoric about how the Olympics are simultaneously the best thing that has ever happened to the country and the most dangerous thing to ever happen in this country, but they have. As such, there is a pervasive need to be seen to be doing something to address this hyperbolic threat. The most recent iteration of this is announcing that the roof of an apartment complex is the ideal place to locate a missile battery.

Yet this show of strength is impotent.

In a replay of 7/7, missiles will not save us. From Omagh to Oaklahoma to Oslo, terrorists have struck not from the air but on the ground, with homemade bombs hidden in unremarkable vehicles or about their person. And really, by the time the bomb is in place, it is sadly too late.

Even in a 9/11 situation, are we really going to start shooting down planes over previously mentioned densely populated areas and Olympic venues? From some of the busiest skies in Europe?

There probably are people out there who would love to blow London sky high during the Olympics, or crash planes, or release toxins. However, I trust our security services and police to stop them in advance, like they did on 21 July 2005, or with the liquid bomb plot. This is surely what we all want.

Missiles on rooftops and heaths are not reassuring, they are ludicrous and give the impression that the government has not only lost the plot, but lost control. If we get to the stage where we are blowing things up ourselves in the name of safety, then God help us all.

Victim blaming: Because none of us is as cruel as all of us

24 Apr

Not as anonymous as you think. Pic: Vectorportal.com

When I think about the latest Twitterstorm, involving the alleged naming of a rape victim, I am reminded of an old Anonymous saying: “Because none of us is as cruel as all of us.” I think it sums up nicely the attitude and perhaps the outcome of of the behaviour of some people on Twitter.

Briefly, for those of you unfamiliar with the story, on Friday Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans was sentenced to five years in prison for the rape of a 19 year old girl who, it was ruled, was too drunk to consent to sex with him in May last year. Almost immediately, tweets began to surface supporting Evans and calling the victim every derogatory name under the sun. There is a good analysis of this part of the story and rape culture by Amanda Bancroft at the Guardian here.

While this is spiteful, hurtful, disgusting and not least of all concerning regarding the attitudes of some men to rape, what happened next is, in my opinion, far more serious. People started naming the victim.

Why is this more serious? Because, if nothing else, it puts the victim in danger. It is also a crime: under British law, rape complainants are awarded automatic and life-long anonymity. The penalty for naming a complainant is £5,000 (kind of low, IMO, but that’s not the discussion here).

It’s one of those strange facts about the internet, particularly when there is perceived anonymity, that people start to do things that they would almost certainly never do in real life. A sort of group-think takes over and people become vicious and nasty. They bully. A magnifying glass is held up to the darker elements of their personality and they start saying and doing things that, offline, they wouldn’t normally – or would to a lesser extent, which is where the Anonymous saying comes from.

So lets look at the Twitter situation: You’re angry that a footballer from your team has been put away because of some slag and you take to Twitter to vent your frustration. You see someone else openly abusing her, so you do it too. You see people saying that any other lad would do the same – that they would do the same. Confirmation bias enters in – these are people who agree with you that this guy was stitched up by some silly bitch who can’t handle her drink, ‘yeah’, you think, ‘who wouldn’t do the same, silly whore’, and you join in. #justiceforched you type. Then some of your new found compatriots start naming her and you are so caught up in this whirlpool that you do it too – stupid cow had it coming.

Now lets translate this to the real world: You’re down the pub. You’re chatting with your mates. A similar conversation starts to take place – this girl was asking for it. ‘Yeah’, you mumble into your pint. Then, one of your mates gets up on the bar and starts shouting this to the whole of the rest of the pub – he runs outside and starts shouting it at the top of his voice to everyone in the street. With a megaphone. It turns out he knows her name, and starts shouting that out too. He produces leaflets with this information and starts thrusting them at people, then runs off and starts posting them  through letterboxes. If online anonymity morals were applied to this situation, you and all your mates would have copied him, and some people you don’t even know would join in, because they feel similarly aggrieved. But that’s not what you would do in real life, because you’d recognise it was wrong. You’d talk your mate down off the bar, thinking that maybe it was him who’d had too much to drink, and the barman would turf the lot of you out.

The online world is an extension of the real world, not a separate entity, and that is something that people seem to forget. Perceived anonymity does not mean immunity from the law either – I say perceived because, while you may not be using your real name on Twitter or think you have any identifying information on there, you are ridiculously easy to trace by someone with a reason and the means. The police, for example. People also forget that Twitter is not a private conversation,  it is a massive broadcast to over 140 million users, plus anyone else who cares to have a look without logging in.

So I guess the moral of the story is if you wouldn’t do it offline, think twice before you do it online. Oh and don’t break the law.

Don’t blame the game, blame the player

18 Apr

People dressing up and playing Warcraft. Dangerous.
Pic: Swanky on Flickr

What do all people who play computer games have in common?

Probably very little, actually, other than they enjoy playing computer games. Certainly not a psychotic and violent streak that will inexorably lead them to go on some kind of murder spree. Yet, once again, the accusation that gaming leads to death, doom and destruction has reared its ugly head, this time in the trial of Norwegian terrorist and mass-murderer Anders Brievik.

For once, the game in question isn’t the supposedly crime-spree spawning Grand Theft Auto franchise, or even Call of Duty (yet). It is, somewhat bizarrely, World of Warcraft.

For the uninitiated, Warcraft is a fantasy ‘massive multiplayer online game’, or MMO. Players are able to take on an in-game persona of an elf, or wizard or other mythical/magical character, and you create your avatar to represent you online. You fight with weapons and with magic. Sort of Dungeons and Dragons, but with pixels, instead of plastic.

It is this game that the prosecutor in the Breivik case has described as “violent”, projecting an image of  Breivik’s Justicar Andersnordic avatar to the court for all to see, and intimating that it influenced a massacre that left 77 dead.

A game in which you pretend to be a wizard.

I’m not being sniffy about Warcraft here – far from it, even though it’s not really my thing. No, what I’m saying is that it is time to stop blaming games, or TV or films when people decide to kill each other.

To blame Warcraft (which is far more likely to keep you glued to your screen wearing five-day-old-clothes than anything else) is to ignore the fact that 10.3 million other people play the game regularly. 10.3 million. Breivik is a statistical aberration in the face of numbers like that, as he is in the scheme of humanity generally. And that’s just people who play that one game. Millions, possibly billions, of people play all kinds of games every day – some much more graphic and violent than Warcraft – and the vast majority will never kill anyone in their life, let alone within the following 12 months. I played Assassin’s Creed II earlier, but I have no desire to stab anyone. I don’t even want to go free running.

So what’s the deal here? Well, the prosecutor, Svien Holden, has pointed out that the rank achieved by Breivik in the game, Justicar, kind of sounds a bit like ‘Justiciar’, as in ‘Knight Justiciar’, the rank that he claims to hold in the real life Knights Templar. Damning evidence if ever I heard it.

But couldn’t it be that Breivik’s existing delusions led him to Warcraft, with its Justicar rank? Or even that it’s a complete coincidence? After all, there are plenty of actual Templar themed games to play if you’ve got a thing for the Knights Templar.

Computer games are so often blamed for making people violent, or misogynists, or isolated, or just generally rotting the brain, but the reality is most gamers are normal people, just like you. And while the media has always had a taste for hysteria when it comes to pop culture, if World of Warcraft is responsible for Anders Breivik’s actions, then the Beatles are responsible for the murder of Sharon Tate.

In which someone does a thing on the internet

17 Apr

ZOMG It's a hacker!

“Wawawewa! Hackers everywhere! OMG they’ve hacked the government! *headspin*”

This was pretty much the reaction from the media when TeamPoison (or TeaMP0is0N, as I believe they prefer to be called – 83c4U53 U51Ng l337 M4k35 7h3M 3v3N M04r 5C4rY & H4Ck3r15H, or something like that) apparently hacked the MI6 anti-terrorist hotline, recorded the calls and ‘leaked’ them on YouTube.

Wawawewa indeed.

But feeling skeptical, I headed over to listen to these hacked phone calls – the proof of hackers’ omnipresence and omnipotence on the web. The experience went something like this:

YT: (picture of ‘phonejacker’) ring-ring, ring-ring

Me: …hmmm

YT: “hello hotline” “how you doin’ girl?” “fine thank you” “so I got some terrorist infor…”

At this point, I hit stop. Why? Because what had been posted on YouTube was clearly just a self recording of ‘TriCk’ calling the hotline and, in my opinion anyway, you can’t really ‘leak’ your own phone call. But it’s too late, the media is going nuts with hackershackershackershackers. It later transpires that the kids behind the phone call actually set up an automatic re-dialler to jam the hotline’s phones – sort of a telephone equivalent of how most website ‘hacks’ take place, by overwhelming the system with requests. No, you’re right, I would have no idea how to do either a DDOS or jam a phone line, but just because a guy does a thing on the internet, calls himself a hacker and then brags about it, doesn’t make it so.

And this is kind of important when it comes to reporting ‘cyber crime’ and ‘cyber terrorism’. One cannot underestimate the ego on these guys; it’s what fuels their hacker battles, it’s what makes them advertise their activities to the world and, ultimately, it’s what gets them caught (which is why Anonymous used to have a habit of outing anyone who tried to rise to prominence or said they spoke for the collective). And caught they have been.

No doubt there are real hackers out there doing real hacker stuff (e.g. the guy recently sent to jail for *actually* hacking the BPAS website and getting names and addresses), and there is definitely real cyber crime, but is some 17-year-old posting his own phone conversation online really newsworthy? Before going OMG H4CK3RZ, wouldn’t it maybe be worth taking time to investigate what has actually happened? Because the media (and I’m looking at you particularly, the Guardian) behaving like an over-excited dog every time a guy does a thing on the internet is not good journalism and, frankly, is getting kind of old.

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