Fighting Spyware for the Average Man (part 2)

Previously, I had tried to install Linux on my friends’ computer because even after 2 reinstalls, their Windows PC had gotten so loaded down with viruses and spyware that it was unusable. This had lead me to wonder how many people out there have the same problem, and what can be done about it. (Also, it sort of annoys me that a computer can have so much spyware and viruses on it that it just isn’t fast enough to do anything useful anymore.)

As it turns out, this particular computer happened to be slow and old to start with, although it is definitely fast enough that it should be able to do the basics of web browsing, word processing, and playing mp3’s without any problems. In reality, it would literally take around 15 minutes to completely boot up, and then another 5-10 minutes from when you click on Internet Explorer to when it actually comes up (along with about 3 billion popups). I’m not exaggerating, and I didn’t believe it either until I took a look and timed it.

My first idea was to simply install Linux on their computer, and switch them over. Unfortunately, I ran into some problems with that: Ubuntu didn’t seem to have the right drivers for their PC. I could have worked around this by booting to a prompt instead of X Windows and installing it that way, if it weren’t for another issue. Being as their computer was fairly ancient, it only had 128 MB or RAM. Here’s a tip: running off a Live CD with only 128 MB of RAM is a bad idea! Every thing you do takes it forever, and it wasn’t really practical to spend 6-8 hours just to install Linux.

I had thought the story would end there. However, I recently was able to help them get their hands on a slightly used E-Machine. While not top of the line, this 512mb Celeron was 3-4 times better than what they had before. Before they used it, I set it up as a dual-boot machine.

They have an install of Windows XP Home Edition, with all the free protection money can buy; AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, Microsoft Windows Defender, Firefox is the default browser, and Windows Firewall is activated. This is about as good as you can get with Windows, without spending extra money. And let’s face it: you really shouldn’t have to spend lots of money on “protection” just to be able to use your [already very expensive] computer.

They also have an install of Ubuntu Linux 6.10. I installed Automatix2, which will set it up with everything from DVD players to file sharing. All of Ubuntu’s nifty software is present too, like Firefox and OpenOffice. I also set up Ubuntu to auto-login, and changed the /etc/sudoers file so that it doesn’t ask them for a password for admin stuff. While lowering physical security a bit, this makes the end-user experience similar to what they would expect from Windows XP Home. Basically, the Linux install can do everything that the Windows one can, and about as hassle-free. Readers unfamiliar with linux would also be interested to know that this Linux install is completely free. You can download everything you need from the links in this article.

While I’m a huge fan of Linux myself, I hadn’t thought it was really ready for the average person until recently. Ubuntu Linux 5.04 was the one that changes my mind, and 5.10 is an even better release. Still, I don’t realistically expect them to use it …. at first. Human nature includes a certain resistance to change, and as long as their Windows installation remains usable, I don’t think they’ll do anything differently. However, it is reasonable to assume at this point that whatever it is they are doing that gets their computer infected with spyware will happen again. And when it does, they’ll have the option of either booting into a defunct Windows session, or a functional Linux one.

Now, here is the real meat of this experiment:

1. How long can a Windows machine, configured relatively securely and with full antivirus software last when connected to the Internet (there is no router or firewall, their computer goes right to the cable modem)?
2. Once that happens, and they try out Linux because it won’t be spyware-encumbered, will they be able to use it, or even switch to it as their preferred OS?

This is a fairly good experimental setup. There are plenty of people out there looking for answers to both of these questions (myself included). Can you really survive without paying for an anti-virus or spyware software? If you don’t have a Linksys router, or other firewall type of device to protect you? Can average people use Linux? Would they choose to use it? Is it viable to set it up for people who’s computers constantly get infected?

I’ll be checking in with my friends every now and then. I’ll post follow ups every few weeks to track the experiment.

Ah Rainbow Six — You’ve ruined all other FPS Games

If you haven’t played Rainbow Six: Vegas yet, you need to. If you don’t have an XBox 360 or Playstation 3 yet, you need to buy one just for this game. While most of the hype has been focused on Gears of War, Rainbow Six: Vegas simply blows away any other game on any platform.

There are plenty of reasons why Rainbow Six: Vegas is a great game. Unbelievable graphics — by far the best of any first person shooter. A multitude of online game modes, including several co-op modes as well as the standard deathmatch-type games. An involving and well-structured single player campaign. An arsenal of realistic guns and weapons to choose from, including everything from the Desert Eagle, to the trusty MP5, to tear gas. You can use night vision goggles and riot shields.
All of these add to the feeling that you are playing as a member of an elite government counter-terrorist unit. All of the items in the game feel authentic (at least, as far as I can tell not being in a counter-terrorist unit myself), and are still a blast to play with, especially in the online game modes. And yet, there are all sort of things you would expect as the latest “next generation” game. So while they are wonderful, that is not what will cause you to look at all other first person shooters with disdain.

It’s this: Rainbow Six introduces a completely intuitive and fluid cover system. You can hide behind corners, tables, under window sills, and behind doors. You can lean around (or over) obstacles to fire off a few shots, and get back behind cover before your enemies can get a bead on your position. You won’t notice that you’re doing this throughout the game — it becomes complete second nature after playing for even a few minutes.

But just wait until you play another FPS game. I was eagerly anticipating Call of Duty 3. An otherwise also-wonderful “next-gen” game for the 360. It has a lot of the same elements — great graphics, cool scripted sequences, good AI characters. Yet, my player character refused to take cover behind rocks and buildings. I couldn’t stack up my fellow soldiers near a door when trying to infiltrate an enemy-occupied building, and coordinate a simultaneous raid on the interior.

In short, Rainbow Six has set the bar for new minimum features for any new first person shooters. Taking cover has become as basic a need as jumping in Super Mario Bros. Any game from now on will be sub-par if it doesn’t allow it, and it will leave a sour, cheap taste in your mouth when you play older games from before Rainbow Six: Vegas came out.

So, if you even remotely like first person shooters, go out and play this game as soon (and often) as you can. And also be prepared that you won’t be able to play anything else for a while.

Amateur XBox 360

In an unprecedented move for Microsoft, they appear to be encouraging amateur developers to produce games for the XBOX 360 and Windows XP / Vista. While Microsoft has talked about encouraging amateur developers in the past, it has taken little action to do so until now.

Microsoft calls their new program “XNA” (which doesn’t stand for anything). Using Microsoft’s C Sharp programming language, developers can write games that will run on either Windows or the XBox 360. Once written, anyone who purchases the XNA developer package from their 360 (about $100 / year) can then upload those games to their 360.

This program is great for independent developers – from small game studios to individual college students. The XNA environment is actually pretty well thought out. Aside from the cross-platform nature of the environment, they also provide what they call a “content pipeline,” which makes it much easier for developers to get 3d models and artwork into their projects.

The community nature of XNA is also a very welcome change for Microsoft. Already, many user-created tutorials and message boards are popping up on the Internet. If this is any indication, there will be a healthy community of amateur game developers for XNA. Microsoft has also indicated that they will talk with the better game developers for publishing their projects on Xbox Live.

The XNA program is also good for game-players. Where else can you get unlimited games for $100 / year, or less than the cost of 2 regular Xbox 360 games. There already about half a dozen games available.