IT and me

I don’t know a heck of a lot about IT.

I learned a tiny little bit of UNIX and Turbo Pascal at university. Before that, I had tried to teach myself Basic without having a computer.

I also looked into AI back then (1982 or so), got a list of books they were using at the computer science department of one of the two local universities and purchased some of the books (one was by Tanenbaum), when I was deciding what to enroll in before I quit my job in my mid-twenties. The idea of AI interested me, but I enrolled in earth sciences because it is so multidisciplinary (even requiring you to speak other languages because of the fieldwork you do).

I started banking electronically in 1992 or 1993, with a dial-up modem. A few years later, I became one of the first people in Europe with a PayPal account because in those days, it required having a US bank account, and I used to have one. (After I moved to Britain in 2004, I was forced to close that PayPal account, and open a new one.)

My first computer was used, bought from a fellow earth science student who was about to move to the US. My second computer was a used one too. They were later XTs, the same model. (Which means a 286, I suppose.) I e-mailed with those XTs (and for a long time, people told me that this wasn’t possible).

I reprogrammed the second-hand modem to be able to use it with my second XT computer, for e-mail and some rudimentary web access. That took a while. Getting the first XT to cooperate with the modem was much easier, as that modem already had (most of) the right settings.

At university, I worked with Windows as well as with Apple computers. Besides Windows computers, I had a used Mac for a while (purchased from the university, when it upgraded).

I briefly worked at an IT helpdesk where I had to familiarize myself with three new “packages” in one or two days (one of which was the predecessor to DOS).

My first new-bought computer was, I think, a 386?  It may have been still before Windows 95. It was a deal offered by my Dutch bank.

My first web pages were on fortunecity. I had voice comms on my fortunecity pages before most people’s computers even had speakers, let alone microphones.

I bought my first internet domain (armadillo-research.com) in 1998 or 1999, from Easynet. I coded my web sites as text in notepad (and still do, at times). One of those sites had hundreds of pages and several links from Wikipedia (which means that it also served as a knowledge resource for others).

I built the first website for the Environmental Chemistry (and Toxicology) Section of the Royal Netherlands Chemical Society, took part in a meeting concerning its parent organization’s new website (kncv.nl) and contributed to Ben Vroom’s “Checklist voor goede websites” (Kluwer, 2002).

For the Department of Water Engineering and Management at the University of Twente, I helped teach grad students water flow modelling with SOBEK, a package that I had not used myself and had to learn about very quickly.

After I moved to the UK, I decided to build a computer from scratch at some point and was astonished that it worked right away. It also had a really cool case (by Ultra) that was hard to get and easy to work in. (Still the best-looking case I’ve ever seen.)

2019 situation in the UK

I haven’t purchased any new desktop or laptop computers in many years now as I have been the target of persistent hacking since 2008. (It’s targeted at me in person, not random.) I have learned a lot from that, including the fact that if none of the steps you take help for more than a few days, you have to consider the possibility that people are simply going into your home to obtain physical access to your equipment, and that’s what happened in my case. Equipment purchases I made, such as a more expensive router (not using wireless), made no difference and a UPS I bought to be able to operate a PC fully off-grid got accessed too.

(Other types of mischief also often go on in my home when I am out.) Lock-picking and hacking are similar skills, after all, and both are seen as a sport. Just as any computer can get hacked, any lock can be picked or eventually circumvented. What differs is how much time it takes someone.

I have no hacking skills, but I know a tiny little bit about how it is done. Until 2008, I had been using computers with a high level of security and had always been able to solve any problems. For many years, I was part of a related online community in the Netherlands so I used to be up-to-date on the latest threats and vulnerabilities.

I used to do simple things like traceroutes, and in Southsea one day, it enabled me to confirm that my internet traffic was being diverted so that I could not access my domain e-mail and website. I already knew that, but having the printed proof of it is nice (output piped to lpt1). You can’t take it to police as evidence as police officers would have no clue what a traceroute means (and anyway, local police had told me that I needed to go to the Southampton police station and when I did that, Southampton referred me back to Portsmouth Police).

If, to your astonishment, you find that someone is accessing your offline computer(s), rest assured that you’re not going crazy. That is very likely happening via the electrical circuits in the building in which you’re living, if they haven’t been separated properly. (Other mischief can take place that way too, I bet.) It can also done by accessing your equipment and somehow making it accept power-line networking and then making use of the power-line network leakage that is often present in buildings. (Either of this may mean that you need to sue the pants off whoever constructed the building you’re living in.)

If you then place a timer in the circuit (which I did) you may hear it click frantically for a while, but a day or so later, that’s been circumvented too (although that may be because you haven’t realized yet that people are actually going into your flat when you’re out). In my case, it was accompanied by the message “Thought you could keep me out?”. Oh, and my Windows key got reported as stolen, too, and my Google certificate got replaced, and so on and so forth.

Another interesting experience is walking into your office in the middle of the night and finding your computer on. (You can tackle that in the BIOS. It also teaches you not to have your PC plugged into cable or adsl unless you’re using it.) And do you know what it is like when your keyboard input becomes randomised, so that your keywords stop working? (I don’t know about you, but I have set my PC up such that when I switch it on, it asks for a password, but that is not the only time when a randomizer can play up.) Hackers can do this on mobiles and tablets as well. (I’ve seen it happened on one of mine, when I was typing visible text.)

On another occasion, when I still had a landline (am no longer able to afford it), whenever I picked up my phone, it would tell me “You have reached the mailbox of Death’s Door Quest.” followed by the announcement that there was no more space or that the mailbox was full. That lasted about two weeks; I stopped checking after a while.

[I can go on and on and on about this, with more examples, also of positive related occurrences, but I won’t. All or most of my existing clients know about the situation, and I update each of them from time to time. As you will understand now, I have lost some clients and other contacts, and have been needing to stay away from new clients who cannot afford to get exposed to this kind of situation. I also have been in contact with the ICO about it at some point and I had a complicated protocol in place to safeguard certain clients’ interests for a while. Many law firms likely still have almost no data security, by contrast.]

A few years ago, I wrote “Biella’s in love” (Biella = Gabriella Coleman, who holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific & Technological Literacy at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada). You may want to read that too.

I remain utterly astonished by the bullshit all sorts of people and organizations tell each other and notably themselves about their own IT security, and all the excuses they make up to enable their complacency.

I’ve been told all sorts of nonsense too, such as “tablets can’t get hacked” even by people who really should know better.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, British police does not even bother dealing with IT issues any more. These days, most of its officers literally have as much IT knowledge as any homeless meth addict or industrious takeaway owner without website. If they’re lucky, people who have fallen victim to economic computer-related criminality and contact their local police are referred to Action Fraud UK. They then usually contact Action Fraud while entertaining the illusion that Action Fraud actually investigates the crimes they report. It does not. It says so loud and clear on its website, but most people simply don’t want to hear this either.

British police generally no longer investigates crimes committed against members of the public, other than murder and violent assaults (unless you are a prominent person, maybe). This has been the case for over a decade. If you talk to random police officers and ask what you should do after a break-in, you’re likely to be told that you can report it, but that police will only use it as “intelligence” (that is, you will be providing the police with information), but no more than that. Being a police officer has become one of the most stressful and ungrateful jobs there are.

You are allowed to investigate crimes against you and are allowed to try and prevent them, but if you do, police officers may arrest you for criminal harassment without informing you of the exception in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which states the following:

(The duty solicitor who is supposed to do his or her duty if you’re arrested likely won’t tell you about this either!)

These days, you need to stand up for yourself all by yourself in the fight against crimes committed against you. As I already indicated, police will usually only come into action after you’ve already passed away or came close to passing away (as a result of a crime, I mean). It’s good to be aware of that and use common sense in anything you do.

Coming back to IT… my most embarrassing IT experience occurred when I was using an electronic calculator for water modelling exercises (for the above-mentioned SOBEK class). My calculator was giving me bogus results because the batteries were running empty, without me realizing that in time. For a while, nothing added up!

Gaming
Gaming is extremely important within science, but still not used enough. In a gaming environment, scientific solutions are found much quicker. Chemistry as well as water engineering and management are two areas in which gaming can be crucial.

I haven’t done any gaming myself. I briefly had a Second Life, I had a phase in which I played Tetris a lot and a phase in which I played PacMan a lot. That’s it. (My own life has amply made up for the lack of gaming experience.)

Blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and IOT
I was way too late with that (but I have excellent reasons). Then I started reading up a bit and watching YouTube videos. I carried out a few teeny tiny (pennies and cents) BTC purchases and transfers to find out a little bit about how it all worked when cryptocurrencies still had mostly a bad rep. (I remember being nervous about it when I took the first steps.) That experience taught me a little bit about the advantages and disadvantages of using cryptos back then, just a few years ago. Things have improved a lot, as there is more integration with fiat, for example.

I participated in one ICO (a fintech utility token), for about EUR 90 and I spent a mere 3 bucks or so on one top altcoin. The latter may make me 5000 bucks or so one day. If it doesn’t, that’ll be fine too. The ICO may eventually give me a small income stream. It’s still too early to say, but I am not holding my breath, although this crypto usually features in the top-200 on coinmarketcap. I’m hanging onto my holdings for now. Waiting for the tokens to be released and finally actually seeing them in the blockchain they use was quite cool. It also showed me that there was still a lot of work to be done for this new technology to take over the world. (Right after I typed this, it doubled its value within a week and is now in the top-150. No, they are not sitting in my mobile.)

I don’t have any experience with IOT, but I know that IOT is already being used to monitor air pollution in Nuremberg. I have heard that it is also used, in combination with blockchain technology, in track-and-trace applications, with as specific example tracking food from farmer to consumer, so it is likely that this will become a pivotal part of the circular economy. IOT is also being used in several lung health applications.

This you do not want to read, by the way: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-48935111

(Or this: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47812475)

In the 1990s, something that I loved to do quite often was tell my modem in Amsterdam to dial into the measuring equipment in Tampa Bay in Florida, so that I got the local water temperature, and other data, in real time. I thought it was amazing. (It was called the P.O.R.T.S. system; it still exists and it’s online, available to everyone now. See images below.)

It was just as amazing to put my hand on the ripples of a fossilized beach in Scotland or in the Belgian Ardennes and make a data connection across a humanly unimaginably large temporal distance.

And if you’re a geologist, you can look at most fossil ripples and tell whether they existed in a marine (wave) environment or in a stream. That, too, constitutes a data connection across a temporal distance. The chemical (and/or fossil) compositions of many rocks also provide a data connection with the past, telling you for example the temperature and pressure path they experienced, or which water temperatures, water depths etc.

By the way, the turquoise colors on the left in the images below, that’s the Gulf of Mexico, with a long line of barrier islands.