As long-time readers might already be aware, I opted out of the whole Windoze Unpaid Bugtester craze some time ago now. Although there are times when I curse the inconvenience associated with some of the effects, I do happen to feel that I am better for it. However, just like there are myths and stupid misconceptions associated with autism, skin cancer, diabetes, and just about everything else of significance in my life, there are also myths and stupid misconceptions associated with my computer of choice, the Apple iMac.
One of those misconceptions is that the examples of self-replicating malicious code known as viruses (proper plural is actually virii, guys) somehow bypass Macintosh computers. Whilst it is true that in security terms, OS X does not lay out the welcome mat for malicious hackers and generally not-nice folk, said malicious hackers and generally not-nice folk also do not discriminate when it comes to platform. In fact, it can be said that virus authors are the first programmers in history to have made any serious attempt to go cross-platform.
Now, earlier in this journal’s life, I wrote about how my long-suffering desktop computer one day decided to just pack it in and refuse to boot anymore. The new computer began to show troubling signs of performance degradation recently. So soon, you ask? Yep. And whilst I am not lacksidasial about the health and security of my computer, I will freely admit that the substantial investment of time involved in running a complete scan of just my computer’s main hard drive (for some reason, one must set aside a good four hours at minimum) is offputting. So you can imagine how I felt about it when I ran my copy of VirusBarrier earlier this week and heard the voiceover lady say “virus detected” about ten minutes after I started the scan. Oh dear. As you might imagine, I also became very frustrated when the program seemed to just stop responding part of the way through scanning one of the several external hard drives that are connected to my computer.
Let the record reflect that I love external hard drives. Between the trackball and the external hard drive, I am still umming and ahhing over which of the peripherals attached to my iMac I like the most. Granted, I have about two terabytes of space that I will likely never fill on my current iMac, but never let anyone fool you that having an extra couple of terabytes here and there that can be detached and taken with you (or locked in a safe) is a bad thing. You just never know.
But anyway, when all was said and done, VirusBarrier found eleven counts of what it terms malware. Regardless of the terminology or definitions you use, that is bad, and indicates a major lapse in protocol on my part. Now, I do not know how drastic one has to be when viruses are detected in OS X, but instructing the computer to “clean” the files that were reported as infected seem to restore the computer’s performance to what I generally conclude to be normal. Although I do understand most of the basics of computing, the whole programming and general trickery thing is still, and likely always will be, beyond me. This is especially the case with an operating system that nobody else you know in the flesh and blood sense uses.
I am not a fan of the concept of self-replicating code. Antivirus professionals are of the position that there is no such such as a benevolent virus. I agree with them. An important concept in any appliance, regardless of whether it is one as complex and multi-faceted as a computer or one as simple as a toaster, is that one should be able to make it do what one wants it to do. Computers as they currently are not only fail at this, they are the only device that can be made to remotely sabotage other devices of similar description without the actual owner’s knowledge. The antivirus professional position in the matter is that any desired function can be manually invoked by the user, making the automation of such functions without the user’s knowledge or consent totally unnecessary.
Now, please allow me to reiterate: I do not like Apple the company, and I mean at all. Their unrepentant belief that every device in the world should be chained to them, and all music should be MP3, and all video squished down to fit the tiny dick syndrome of the Internet, makes me very wary of the company itself. But I spent the best part of two decades trying to get my creative work done within the limitations of the Mickeysoft sphere, and in 2008 or thereabouts, I had simply had enough. I have already written at some length about why Linuxen and other such open-source software is not an option, too. This is not a case of zealotry, but simply doing what is practical from my point of view.
Commodore Amiga computers were also vulnerable to “infections” by viral code. Oh, how much fun that was. I am not going to go into technical details about how Amiga software that was stored on floppy disc worked, but suffice to say that the code, memory, and instruction sets of your average Amiga had a million points of failure (or so it seemed), and each seemed to itch for a chance to be tripped over. Looking back on things like how viruses overwrote floppy disc boot sectors or how an infected disc’s software basically had to be kissed goodbye, I was not surprised so much when an Amiga’s software did not work. I was more surprised when it did work.
There used to be, and probably still are, paranoid conspiracy theories that the companies that make antivirus protection software were secretly funding the authors of virus code in order to create a market for their product. Nice try, but the ability of computers to execute codes and routines out of sight of the user, combined with the intellectual curiosity of certain types of programmer, means that viral code was inevitable once computers were able to execute routines that were not in direct response to user input. The first videogame, in fact, pretty much made viral code an inevitability (as low-level as the first ones might have been, a computer needed to have some sense of decision-making in order to present an opponent that was not a complete pushover). Unfortunately, one manufacturer of security software, Symantec, has dirtied the nest with likely scareware tactics (essentially, reporting positives regardless of the computer’s actual state). I cannot say as I am surprised, as back when I was still bothering to try and make something usable out of a Windoze PC, I had one experience in which I would put Symantec’s product, Norton AntiVirus, onto a pristine new computer with absolutely no other software on it, and see the computer’s performance instantly get knocked back by a decade’s worth of development. Given that the decade in question meant knocking back from a Pentium to an XT, I am sure one can imagine how preturbed I was at the time by this.
If you came here looking for insight into the way forward for computer science, then I am sorry but I am not the person to ask. Although the computer was a case of love at first sight for me, if a new paradigm or class of device were to come along that did to it what it ended up doing to the typewriter or punch-card machine, I would not miss it one bit. I would hope, no, pray, that the replacement that comes along does not leave itself so open and vulnerable to the whims of idiots and assholes with bad intentions, but unfortunately whenever there is a device or machine, there will be people obsessively poring over it, searching for ways in which to sabotage it or twist it towards some purpose that does not even begin to coincide with what it was designed for. That is, sadly, the nature of our species.
I do believe, however, that computer science will take off in a big way when new generations of programmers look at how automotive science and the sciences behind other home appliances work, and come to the realisation that just because a user wants to drive a sedan does not mean they should be obligated to learn how to drive a tank. Of course, being able to drive a tank would be a handy skill, but I am not going to actively search out for that skill because in the practical world where sedans are the expected norm, said skill would be of limited use anyway.
I do enjoy laughing at films where the capabilities of computers and virus code are misrepresented or outright made up. There is one example that I am not even going to mention except to say that the awarding of an Oscar to its main star (not for her performance in that film, thank Odin) was the first nail in the coffin of the Oscars’ credibility. (Of course, awarding Julia Roberts one was nails two through about five hundred billion.) But the ending of Terminator 3 was especially hilarious in this respect. I am genuinely aghast that nobody cites it as an example of how when one tries to appear “hip” and “nooow”, the extent to which it will blow up in your face is comparable to how much you do not know about the subject.
Oh yeah, that whole thing about whole the proper plural of virus is virii? Same thing with the majority of words in the English language that end in “us”, especially those derived from Latin. Do people really think I just make things up to put in this journal? Have none of those out there I do not really have any knowledge of learned anything yet?