A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

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Markets Have Not Ruined Video Games

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According to Lorne Lanning capitalism is destroying the gaming industry. In his eyes the for-profit game development model has lead to a world where creativity is stifled by large developers. The Foundation for Economic Education has a good rebuttal by pointing out that the video game industry wouldn’t even be a thing without markets. I want to take it a step further though.

Lanning believes the solution to capitalism in video gaming is independent developers:

In today’s marketplace, Lanning pointed to the indie victories we’ve witnessed with titles like Octodad or Monument Valley. Yes, it takes money to make money, but it doesn’t have to take tens of millions.

What he doesn’t stop to consider is that independent developers are enjoying a great deal of success thanks, in part, to the major game developers that he seems to despise. There has never been a better time to be an independent game developer. This is because the development tools have become cheaper (often free) and more capable and getting titles in front of customers is dead simple.

Consider Microsoft. As much as I dislike Windows I can’t fault Microsoft for how it treats developers. Over the years it has created excellent development tools, streamlined game development with its DirectX framework, and created a distribution platform that every Xbox and Windows gamer has access to. If I want to release a game for the Xbox Microsoft is very much interested in helping me see my dream come true because it stands to profit from my success. And Microsoft isn’t the only game in town. Valve has given independent developers an amazing distribution platform for PCs with Steam. It has also given game developers a great engine called Source. I haven’t even mentioned Sony, with its PlayStation store, Google with its Play Store, or Apple with development tools and App Stores for both OS X and iOS.

It was only a few years ago when independent developers had to front the expense of developing, advertising, and distributing titles. This often resulted in a hodgepodge of a million online stores, product keys you had to keep track of, and other assorted headaches. Now an independent developer can download excellent, free developer tools and publish the completed title to the Xbox Games Store, the PlayStation Store, Google Play, Steam, and the Apple App Stores. From there users can click a few buttons and have the game downloaded to their system with minimal hassle.

Markets gave rise to today’s large developers. These large developers then created development tools and platforms that helped give rise to independent developers. Someday the independent developers will become large themselves and likely create new tools and platforms to give rise to new independent developers.

Video games have gone from a geeky hobby you got beat up for enjoying to a multi-billion dollar industry. The only reason we have capable gaming hardware, quality development tools, and easy distribution platforms is because developers of old satisfied customer wants enough to acquire the capital necessary to build these things. Had the Nintendo Entertainment System or Sega Genesis flopped it’s possible that video games would still be a niche industry. Dedicated gaming hardware such as consoles and graphics cards would likely be much less capable than they are today. Development tools would probably still be primitive due to the lack of investment in improving them. Distribution would almost certainly still rely on a hodgepodge of disparate websites and produce keys. After all, why would a large developed like Microsoft put any money into the growing the gaming industry if it didn’t stand to profit? How would Valve have acquired the capital necessary to build Steam if Half-Life hadn’t raked in so much money?

I think Lanning’s real objection to today’s gaming industry is that the best selling titles aren’t the titles he enjoys. As somebody who doesn’t enjoy today’s most popular series, such as the titular Call of Duty, I can relate. But the success of those blockbuster series hasn’t hampered the games I enjoy. Series I enjoy, such as MegaMan and Armored Core, have seen releases in recent times. Inafune, one of the creators of the MegaMan series, has even branched out on his own to release a spiritual successor. Igarashi, one of the masterminds behind Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, has also branched out to release a spiritual successor. Capitalism hasn’t destroyed the gaming industry, it has propelled it forward. All of the capital acquired by releasing blockbuster titles has given way to tools that help independent game developers. Hell it’s unlikely Oddworld, Lanning’s most well-known title, would have never seen the light of day if it wasn’t for blockbuster titles from the 8-bit and 16-bit console days creating a major gaming industry.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 27th, 2015 at 11:00 am

Deus Ex is Our Future

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Deus Ex is a great series of video games because it not only has great game play but also addresses the issue of transhumanism. As prosthetic technology improves we will certainly have people opting to have their squishy natural limbs and organs replaced by far superior mechanical versions. Even now prosthetics are becoming more capable. But they still lack one major feature, a sense of touch. That will soon change:

Daniel Moran, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and of neurobiology, of physical therapy and of neurological surgery at the School of Medicine, has received a three-year, nearly $1.9 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test a novel device his lab developed that would stimulate the nerves in the upper arm and forearm. If it works, upper-limb amputees who use motorized prosthetic devices would be able to feel various sensations through the prosthetic, which would send sensory signals to the brain.

[…]

Moran and his team, which includes Harold Burton, PhD, professor of neurobiology; Wilson (Zach) Ray, MD, assistant professor of neurological surgery, both at the School of Medicine; and Matthew MacEwen, who will graduate with an MD/PhD in May 2015 and worked on this project for his dissertation, have developed a macro-sieve peripheral nerve interface designed to stimulate regeneration of the ulnar and median nerves to transmit information back into the central nervous system. The macro-sieve is made of an ultrathin, flexible material similar to a soft contact lens, is about 1/8th the size of a dime and looks like a wagon wheel with open spaces between the “spokes” that allow the nerve to grow.

At this rate we’ll have actual cyborgs within the decade. It’s amazing how quickly technology is advancing. Much of it is due to the development of every smaller power-efficient computers. Since technology is cumulative, that is to say technology builds on itself to create more technology, we may enjoy that almost utopian future dreamed of in the 1950’s (you know the one with flying cars and infinite energy provided by nuclear power).

Written by Christopher Burg

May 18th, 2015 at 10:30 am

Embrace the Machines

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Self-driving cars are advancing quickly, which has lead to a debate. Many people don’t like the idea of self-driving cars because they believe the potential for software glitches to lead to a catastrophic crash is too high. I, on the other hand, can’t wait to buy a self-driving car. Software glitches are always a possibility but the truth is we humans are far more prone to error when driving then current self-driving cars have been. That’s because our species as a problem with complacency. When we do a task successfully so many times we become less cautious and allow ourselves to be distracted more easily. This is why humans suck at watching security monitors all day. It’s also why adding some intelligence to our vehicles makes a lot of sense. Recently the European New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) did a study on self-braking cars and found that they reduced rear-end collisions significantly:

While we’re still some way off seeing full-blown, self-driving cars winding their way across continental Europe, a more modest autonomous technology has found approval with safety bods. Research conducted by the European road safety research organisation Euro NCAP concluded that having a car automatically slam on the brakes to avoid low-speed accidents leads to a 38 percent reduction in rear-end crashes.

As you’ll note software glitches didn’t lead to an increase in crashes. And while software glitches could lead to isolated failures that almost certainly won’t be enough to offset the benefits of such a highly reduce rear-end collision rate. This also shows that there are things machines are better at than us squishy humans. Repetitive tasks, such as driving, are one of them.

Machines are not only incapable of getting bored but they are also better at maintaining awareness. A computer can monitor a vast number of sensors simultaneously whereas us humans have five sense that are very restricted (for example, our vision only sees forward and our sense of touch requires physical contact). If you think you can maintain better awareness than a self-driving car equipped with cameras, radar, laser sensors, radio communication to other self-driving cars, and a slew of other sensors you are mistaken.

The debate over self-driving cars shouldn’t be whether software glitches will lead to isolated catastrophes. It should be over whether self-driving cars, as a whole, will increase overall vehicle safety. Since machines are better at almost every aspect of driving (road rage is the only exception I can think of) than we are the debate is pretty much settled. That’s not to say wanting a car you drive yourself because you prefer to drive a car yourself isn’t a valid reason to buy one. But the concerns about safety risks involve in self-driving cars has been put to rest.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 15th, 2015 at 10:30 am

North Korea’s Web Browser

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North Korea has its own operating system called Red Star OS. Not surprisingly it’s a distribution of Linux. What makes it interesting is that it’s the official operating system of one of the most closed nations on Earth. Recently it leaked onto the Internet and people have been playing with it. So far the most interesting article I’ve found involves the operating system’s web browser:

If you want to send a request to a web address across the country, you need to have a hostname or an IP address. Hostnames convert to IP addresses through something called DNS. So if I want to contact www.whitehatsec.com DNS will tell me to go to 63.128.163.3. But there are certain addresses, like those that start in “10.”, “192.168.” and a few others that are reserved and meant only for internal networks – not designed to be routable on the Internet. This is sometimes a security mechanism to allow local machines to talk to one another when you don’t want them to traverse the Internet to do so.

Here’s where things start to go off the rails: what this means is that all of the DPRK’s national network is non-routable IP space. You heard me; they’re treating their entire country like some small to medium business might treat their corporate office. The entire country of North Korea is sitting on one class A network (16,777,216 addresses). I was always under the impression they were just pretending that they owned large blocks of public IP space from a networking perspective, blocking everything and selectively turning on outbound traffic via access control lists. Apparently not!

Yup, the entire country is apparently treated as one giant intranet. The zany doesn’t stop there though. Check out the article because North Korea certainly made some intriguing design decisions.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 9th, 2015 at 10:30 am

Posted in Technology

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Neocon Quest, My Proposal for a Video Game

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Every since I was young I’ve always wanted to make a video game. Unfortunately my skills in the art department are nil so it never happened. But from time to time I still like to come up with ideas for games. My latest idea is Neocon Quest. In it you will play a neocon politicians who has just been elected to a city council or a boarder town, which is your first step on the way to the presidency.

The first stage will be similar to SimCity except you’re not building the city. Instead you are using your position on the city council to extract taxes from the populace in order to build a wall along the boarder and to attract several large companies involved in the military-industrial complex.

Stage two will continue from there. With the wall build and military-industrial complex firmly cemented you move on to dealing with social issues. Namely you must run out everybody who isn’t a white straight cisgender Christian conservative or a Jewish individual with ties to Israel.

Once you’ve accomplished that goal you’re ready for the House of Representatives! Once you’re a representative your task is to secure funding for a multi-billion dollar fighter jet that cannot reliably fly, provide oxygen to the pilot, or fire its main gun due to a software glitch.

I’m still thinking about the middle stages but eventually you become the commander in chief! From here the game will begin to play similar to Command and Conquer. You will be tasked with building a military base in a nondescript Middle Eastern country. In addition to building a base you must also harvest resources (oil) and build a war machine to take on the local opposition. The opposition won’t have a base, a military, or the ability to harvest resources. What the opposition will have are AK-47s, improvised explosive devices, and the home field advantage. Victory isn’t achieved by killing all of the opposition units (it has infinite units) but by earning propaganda point. Propaganda points are acquired by killing opposition units, which also helps it recruit new units and thus increases its numbers, and by covering up the atrocities committed by your soldiers.

Obviously this is just the beginning of a much larger idea but I wanted to toss it out there because I think other people may have valuable input.

Written by Christopher Burg

January 5th, 2015 at 10:30 am

Internet Defensive Services

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The dust is beginning to settle after the Fappening. For those who haven’t been following along the Fappening involved individuals gaining unauthorized access to nude photos of celebrities stored on Apple’s iCloud service. Earlier this week the Fappeneing was looking to strike again as a website appeared with a countdown. The site claimed that when the countdown reached zero nude photos of Emma Watson would be released. As it turns out the site was a hoax and now there is a debate about whether it was a hoax created by 4chan itself or a marketing company aimed at taking down 4chan. But the mere existence of the site created a shitstorm that has fueled a lot of angry ranting. Most of the ranting can be summarized by the idea that women aren’t safe on the Internet.

First of all let me say that it’s good that people are in an uproar. Data breaches suck but all too often they raise little ire. When they do manage to piss a lot of people off resources get diverted to tighten security. But so long as people aren’t outraged companies are all too happy to let known security issues linger until somebody gets bit in the ass. While Apple has finally taken measure to fix the iCloud vulnerability the damage has been done. The images are out there and there’s no way to remove them since the Internet is forever.

But this situation got me thinking. Stunts like the Fappening are all too easy to pull off because the minor risks involved are seldom dissuasive. To prevent thing like the Fappening from occurring again the risks need to be increased. Most people seem to be aware of this and they have been demanding stronger laws against unauthorized computer access and other state interventions. Let me say that demanding state intervention is pointless. The state doesn’t give a fuck about anybody but itself and its cronies. It will only exploit these situations to gain more power for itself over the Internet without actually address the issue.

What we really need are hackers. As an anarchist I’m a proponent of a compensatory justice system, social ostracization, and outlawry. Suffice to say when it is possible to compensate somebody for a wrong then they should be compensated. If an individual or individuals have a habit of shitty behavior then the community should ostracize them. And if somebody refuses to abide by the laws of society (the natural laws created through spontaneous order, not the decrees issued by the state) they should not receive the protection of the law. For any of this to be possible the identity of the bad actors must be uncovered.

My proposal is complex and revolutionary since it works outside of the state (in fact by the state’s very laws it is illegal as hell). But I put forth that hackers should form organizations with the purpose of identifying bad actors and seeking justice against them. This obviously requires a lot of investigative work and either cooperation from organizations that have suffered data breaches or gaining unauthorized access to their systems to collect forensic information. Once the bad actors have been uncovered justice can be sought. Depending on the severity of the offense justice may entail something as simple as compensation paid to the victim or as complex as attacking any system in that person’s possession with the express purpose of preventing them from gaining access to the Internet. In especially egregious circumstance destruction of their data, credit ratings, and identity may be called for.

In other words I propose we create our own justice system just as stateless societies have in the past. I subscribe to the ideas expressed in the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto. The Internet is the realm of those who use it, not the state. To borrow a page from agorism we need to create our own goods and services and utilize the market to determine where resources should be prioritized. Seeking justice against those who gain unauthorized access to other people’s personal data sounds like a good place to put some resources. And it’s something that people can do. Most of the electrons spilled over the Fappening have been in the form of impotent bitching. Take the article I linked to that claimed women aren’t safe on the Internet. A group of feminist hackers coming together to seek justice against those who wrong women online could create a safer Internet for women. It certainly would accomplish more than complaining has.

Written by Christopher Burg

September 26th, 2014 at 11:00 am

Tesla Taking Car Security Seriously

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One of the neat and odd things I saw in the Defcon vendor area was a Tesla car. This is especially true when talks about hacking cars are given regularly:

The guys in that video are awesome presenters by the way. As it turns out Tesla was at Defcon preciously because it doesn’t want to be featured in one of these videos:

Tesla is one of the only household corporate names with an official presence this year at Def Con, an annual security conference held in Las Vegas, where attendees try to hack the hotel elevators and press room. The company is here courting hackers who can help it find holes in the software that controls its cars. It’s looking to hire 20 to 30 security researchers from Def Con alone, Ms. Paget says. Moreover, hackers who report bugs to Tesla get a platinum-colored “challenge coin.” If they show up at a Tesla factory and give the security team a heads-up, they get a free tour.

This is something I’m happy to read about. Computer security in the automotive industry, like the medical industry, is seldom considered. I’m not surprised by this fact since security costs time and money, which means it’s only considered after products have been fallen to widespread exploitation. Your computer and smartphone are only as security as they are (which isn’t to say they’re very secure but they are veritable fortresses compared to systems from earlier days) is because corporate and personal computers have been the targets of an almost uncountable number of exploits. Each industry seems destined to experience these same mistakes instead of learning from other industries that have already done so. Tesla, on the other hand, is acting more like a smartphone company in this regard by taking security seriously enough to hire people dedicated to ensuring its cars’ computers are at least somewhat secure.

This will pay off in the long run for Tesla. As vehicles become more integrated with technology they are going to become bigger targets for malicious attackers. If automotive manufacturers don’t nip this in the bud now they’re going to suffer many years of lawsuits related to their lack of on-board computer security.

Written by Christopher Burg

August 13th, 2014 at 11:00 am

Defcon 22 Recap

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I’m back from my vacation. Where did I go? Well:

at-the-podium-at-defcon-22

That’s me at the podium in Track Two giving a rousing presentation about the need for hackers all around the world to use their skills to break into and sabotage government all government networks. Just kidding. That picture of me was taken by a friend when we gained access to Track Two after it was locked up for the night.

Defcon 22 was a blast. Things started off on a good foot when the room I had booked at the Palms was unavailable so they had to upgrade me to a better room for free. The room had living room separate from the bedroom and two bathrooms. It was a shame to have such a nice room and not spend much time in it but Defcon itself was packed with things to do. I got in line for my badge a few minutes before eight and proceeded to slowly make my way towards the registration desk for the next two and a half hours. During that time I made a few friends and learned some interesting things. After obtaining my fancy electronic badge I attended a handful of talks and met up with some friends.

Friday, when Defcon really begins, was packed with great talks. Defcon was also packed with people. I felt as though the number of attendees this year was at least 50 percent higher than last year (later I talked to a goon who said that the number of attendees wasn’t actually that much higher than last year but agreed that it felt much higher). As usual the convention was an exercise in controlled chaos. The villages proved to be interesting but the Social Engineering Village didn’t have nearly as much space as it needed and the Hardware Hacking Village was shoved off into a corner that was only accessible by going through the competition area. New this year were the Crypto Village and the Industrial Controllers Village. I walked through the latter but didn’t spend much time in it. The Crypto Village was interesting as they had some excellent presentations. It was there that I learned the Fifth Amendment doesn’t protect your biometric data. While you may be protected from giving the police the decryption key for your hard drive you cannot refuse to give your fingerprint (at least under the Fifth Amendment, technically you could refuse to do so until they decided to murder you). So securing your data with a fingerprint probably isn’t the best idea (I’m looking at your iPhone 5S users).

During the evening a few friends and myself hung out in Track One where several electronic music performers were doing their thing. One of the groups to play was Anamanaguchi. Their album sounds like it was made on an old Nintendo Entertainment System, which is pretty cool. But their live performance didn’t, which was disappointing. I still had fun though likely thanks to the alcohol.

Saturday was basically Friday all over again. Lots of good talks and fun things to do. During the evening a few friends and I went to Hacker Jeopardy. In years prior there was a woman on stage who would remove an article of clothing whenever a team got a Double Jeopardy question correct. That wasn’t the case this year. This didn’t surprise me too much since Defcon does get a lot of flak for being a sexist event (and much of that flak is justifiable). After Jeopardy we went to the party out by the pool. That started off pretty poorly since the girl performing was, well, fucking horrible. So my friends and I found ourselves in Track One again where the music was a marked improvement.

Sunday, being the last day of Defcon, was much more somber. Most of us were exhausted from back-to-back all-nighters. A couple of Sunday’s talks were very interesting. Deviant’s talk about elevators was fascinating. The closing ceremonies were as usual (which for me means kind of boring) except for the announcement at the end. Defcon 23 will be held at the Paris and Bally’s casinos. I’m not sure whether we outgrew Rio or if Rio simply refused to renew our contract. Hosting Defcon is kind of a pain in the ass since things all over the hotel get compromised and I could see the Rio simply refusing to renew our contract. Either way a new venue will be nice since Rio felt too small.

Defcon 22 was a blast. The only thing that wasn’t a blast was the flight home. Red eye flights aren’t fun and I don’t like touching ground in Minnesota at 05:30. Getting to bed at 07:30 is not my idea of a fun time. But that’s a pretty minor thing to complain about. I can’t wait for Defcon 23.

I’ve been completely out of the loop since Wednesday so I don’t have any other posts prepared for today. Catching up on a week’s worth of news and events isn’t easy, especially when your sleep schedule has been thoroughly fucked up by a red eye flight. Normal posting should resume tomorrow.

Written by Christopher Burg

August 12th, 2014 at 10:00 am

Posted in Side Notes

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iOS 8 Adds Interesting Privacy Features

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If nothing else came of Edward Snowden’s leaks at least it pushed companies to focus more on privacy and security features. Whether you acknowledge Snowden as a hero or a villain (in which case you’re wrong) you are benefitting from his actions. His actions destroyed the trust people had in both the government and major technology companies. Now companies are scrambling to rebuild that trust and they’re doing so by adding more security and privacy features to their products. Come fall iOS users will be benefitting from this attempted rebuilding of trust in an interesting way as their devices will become harder to track via Wi-Fi:

It wasn’t touted onstage, but a new iOS 8 feature is set to cause havoc for location trackers, and score a major win for privacy. As spotted by Frederic Jacobs, the changes have to do with the MAC address used to identify devices within networks. When iOS 8 devices look for a connection, they randomize that address, effectively disguising any trace of the real device until it decides to connect to a network.

Every network interface has a media access control (MAC) address. In the case of Wi-Fi interfaces this address is plainly visible to anybody watching. That makes tracking devices via Wi-Fi fairly trivial. If you see a MAC address picked up by a cafe at one end of the street and a library at the other end of the street you know where the user is and the direction he or she is traveling. With enough data you can get a pretty good idea of the places a person frequents.

Randomizing this address until a connection has been made to the access point makes tracking a device over time difficult as it doesn’t appear to be the same device every time it passes an access point.

I believe this is a good feature and cannot wait until other manufacturers add it to their products.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 12th, 2014 at 11:00 am

Judges Fail Turing Test

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In the world of artificial intelligence there is the Turing test. The Turing test was a mechanism developed by Alan Turing see if a machine exhibits intelligence indistinguishable from a human’s. Administration of the test is performed by a human who has access to a terminal that allows him to ask another entity, whom he cannot see, questions. If the administrators cannot determine whether he’s conversing with a human or a machine the machine is said to pass the Turing test.

A couple of days ago the media was abuzz with news that a machine has finally passed the Turing test:

Eugene Goostman seems like a typical 13-year-old Ukrainian boy — at least, that’s what a third of judges at a Turing Test competition this Saturday thought. Goostman says that he likes hamburgers and candy and that his father is a gynecologist, but it’s all a lie. This boy is a program created by computer engineers led by Russian Vladimir Veselov and Ukrainian Eugene Demchenko.

That a third of judges were convinced that Goostman was a human is significant — at least 30 percent of judges must be swayed for a computer to pass the famous Turing Test. The test, created by legendary computer scientist Alan Turing in 1950, was designed to answer the question “Can machines think?” and is a well-known staple of artificial intelligence studies.

The problem with the Turing test is that it depends on the intelligence of both the machine and the administrator. So one could easily say that a machine that passes the Turing test was the result of the judge or judges failing the Turing test. Considering that only one third of the judges were convinced that the machine was human I would say it’s more apt to say that one third of the judges failed the Turing test.

Basing a test meant to detect intelligence on the abilities of a handful of individuals is, in my opinion, a poor method of deciding intelligence. Such a test is going to be extremely subjective. As this test demonstrates some humans are more easily fooled than others.

My thoughts regarding the Turing test aside I still think it’s neat that somebody built a chatbot that actually convinced one third of judges that it was human. That’s no small feat assuming the judges have a background in computer science or psychology.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 10th, 2014 at 10:00 am

Posted in Technology

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