Thursday
May272010

Cars are scary!

I was listening to Security Now! the other day, and Steve Gibson was relaying a report about the networked computer parts in cars. The bottom line is: you might be better off using a horse. Researchers were able to make test cars do all sorts of horrible things with very little effort. The caveat is that the naer-do-well in question needs physical access to the car to do any of this stuff, and at that point they could do horrible things anyway. It's just scary to know that someone could remotely lock your door, then kill the brakes and lights. Boom, instant death trap.

What I find particularly frustrating about all this is how much it mirrors the early days of the internet. The original protocols were designed without security in mind, and we're still dealing with the consequences every day. I give those guys a pass, they were creating a new method of communication and were probably just happy it worked. But car manufacturers are just being lazy. Security through obscurity is not good enough, not when we're talking about tons of metal with people in them.

Tuesday
May252010

Dead Space

Video games were my hobby of choice for the longest time.  They still are, quite frankly, but I just don't have as much time these days to play them. What I've noticed lately is that when I see an interesting sequel on the horizon, I get an insatiable desire to play the original game. This happened when I read Game Informer's preview of Dead Space 2. Dead Space had been on my radar for a long time (since the preview for it in the same magazine, come to think of it). The setting and design choices really appealed to me. And when I heard in the sequel's preview that fans complained it was too intense, I just had to have it.

Can you guess where this is going? I've had it for a couple weeks now, and I can understand what those people were talking about. This game is a blood-pressure raiser, for sure. The team behind it clearly put a lot of thought into it, and crafted the Ninja Gaiden of survival horror games. The game is relentless in delivering tension at every possible moment, and scaring the bejezus out of you regularly.

One of things I really like about the game is how they deal with user interface. Instead of a traditional HUD type UI, all the relevant information is on the character. The health bar is integrated into the spine of his suit, the weapons have ammo screens on them. Maps and items are accessed in real-time using a holographic interface projected from the suit. They also used a nice blue/red motif for interactive objects in the game. If a door or console has a red holographic interface, you know instantly you can't use it. If it's blue, you're good to go. All of this minimizes distractions and interruptions to the action.

What really struck me as odd about playing this game is the feelings it evokes. When I'm not playing it, I feel eager to get back into the game world and chop the beasties into little bits. When I'm playing it, though, I feel almost stricken at times with hesitation about moving forward. I'm far more paranoid about saving frequently in this game than in others of it's ilk. I had the damndest time putting my finger on why, but I think I realized what it was today: the audio! The game is filled with the creepiest sounds I've ever heard in a game. Every now and then you can hear people faintly screaming, things scratching, high pitched music that builds to prolonged crescendos that just grate at your ears. Just the other day I entered an area that was a larger than usual tunnel and as I was walking around, there was something making a moan/growl that I had never heard before. What I'm getting at is that the game maintains this aura of unease while you play it.

The controls are pretty solid in my opinion and use the over-the-shoulder controls popularized by Gears of War. As I'm playing it, when I screw up, I'm accutely aware that it's my aim that sucks, not some fault of the controls. This is a huge step up from the survival horror games I'm used to, namely the older Resident Evil games. So far, this game is fantastic and I'm really looking forward to getting even deeper into it. So, the short version is: This 2 year old game, that everyone says is great, is great.

Sunday
May232010

Database Projects

Now that I have a better idea of how databases work, I want to using them at work.  There are two things I do by hand that I think could be greatly enhanced by using a databases.  The first is tracking computer deployments. We have specialized software that is deployed on certain PCs, and right now I track all of them by hand using various spreadsheets. This works, but it isn't exactly ideal.

The other thing that would benefit from some databasin' is the employee directory. There are a bunch of things we track and put on the intranet about employees, and it's all done in separate documents by hand.  Email lists, a list of birthdays, a photo directory with phone numbers and a phone directory without pictures. It occurred to me during the database class I took that it's madness that I'm tracking this stuff by hand. This is, literally, what databases were designed for.

My biggest hurdle at the moment is mostly inexperience mixed with fighting the inertia of not doing it. I'm trying to be good and actually plan it out instead of just rushing in and making a bunch of mistakes. I've heard, though, that doing things like this have to be done 3 times to get it right. I'm wondering if maybe I should just plow ahead and screw it all up. Then again, the 3-time theory probably doesn't work that way. I don't want to be the guy that has to do it 4 times.

I'll try to catalogue my trials and tribulations implementing these systems at work. I'm not too clear on how specific I can (or should) get about things like that on here. I think it's best to play it on the safe side, at least for now.

Saturday
May152010

Projects

One goal I had in starting this blog was to talk about what I was learning in school, and possibly how I intend to apply it. To that end, I think I'll start posting about projects I'm working on that are influenced by what I learned. This is partly inspired by a recent netcast from Steve Gibson that told of his youth fiddling and building things and how that helped him later in life. I know I learn best when I'm building something or taking something apart, so it seems natural to me to use what I learn in a practical way, and to use this blog as an outlet for process.

For now, everything will be in a big blob together. Once I get a decent amount of project entries, and enough other reviews/other stuff, I'll probably add a bit more structure to the site.

Stay tuned!

Saturday
May082010

Databases

I'm currently enrolled in a database class.  It's coming to a close soon, but I found it surprisingly interesting.  For one, it's hard to conceive of how much information is stored in databases just in this country.  I would wager just about every business with more than 1 employee uses a database for something.  Customer information, employee information, payroll.  I heard somewhere that the average American is in over 70,000 databases.  I scoffed when I first heard that, but now I'm surprised it's not more.

Learning about databases has been interesting.  For me, the subject tended to range from fascinating to painfully boring.  It still amazes me how much power there is in SQL statements.  Who would think that you could manipulate all that data with a few well-worded statements?  The boring part has been spending what feels like a lot of time on basic concepts.  That's probably not fair, though.  I tried to teach myself a bit about databases before taking the class, and I think I have the type of weird brain that gets things like this.

One thing I'm finding a little frustrating is that I now know the basics on how to build and use a database, but there's no real instruction on how to utilize it for anything.  I don't know how I would tie it in with an application, or a web page, or even how to set up professional database software.  It's like there's a weird gap of knowledge between using a small, personal-type database system and using a professional one.  The pro tools expect that if you're looking to use them, you already know how to set up and configure them.  Maybe that will come later, but for now I find it frustrating.