Hackers Want Cambridge Dictionary to Change Their Definition

Maybe it’s the silly season of high summer, or maybe a PR bunny at a cybersecurity company has simply hit the jackpot with a story syndicated by the Press Association, but the non-tech media has been earnestly talking about a call upon the Cambridge Dictionary to remove the word “illegal” from their definition of “Hacker”. The weighty tome from the famous British university lists the word as either “a person who is skilled in the use of computer systems, often one who illegally obtains access to private computer systems:” in its learners dictionary, or as “someone who illegally uses a computer to access information stored on another computer system or to spread a computer virus” in its academic dictionary. The cybersecurity company in question argues that hackers in fact do a lot of the work that improves cybersecurity and are thus all-round Good Eggs, and not those nasty computer crooks we hear so much about in the papers.

We’re right behind them on the point about illegality, because while there are those who adopt the hacker sobriquet that wear hats of all colours including black, for us being a hacker is about having the curiosity to tinker with anything presented to us, whatever it is. It’s a word that originated among railway modelers (Internet Archived version), hardly a community that’s known for its criminal tendencies!

Popular Usage Informs Definition

It is however futile to attempt to influence a dictionary in this way. There are two types of lexicography: Prescriptive and Descriptive. With prescriptive lexicography, the dictionary instructs what something must mean or how it should be spelled, while descriptive lexicography tells you how something is used in the real world based on extensive usage research. Thus venerable lexicographers such as Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster told you a particular way to use your English, while their modern equivalents lead you towards current usage with plenty of examples.

It’s something that can cause significant discontent among some dictionary users as we can see from our consternation over the word “hacker”. The administration team at all dictionaries will be familiar with the constant stream of letters of complaint from people outraged that their pet piece of language is not reflected in the volume they regard as an authority. But while modern lexicographers admit that they sometimes walk in an uneasy balance between the two approaches, they are at heart scientists with a rigorous approach to evidence-based research, and are very proud of their efforts.

Big Data Makes for Big Dictionaries

Lexicographic research comes from huge corpora, databases of tens or hundreds of millions of words of written English, from which they can extract the subtlest of language trends to see where a word is going. These can be interesting and engrossing tools for anyone, not just linguists, so we’d urge you to have a go for yourself.

Sadly for us the corpus evidence shows the definition for “Hacker” has very firmly trended toward the tabloid newspaper meaning that associates cybercriminality. All we can do is subvert that trend by doing our best to own the word as we would prefer it to be used, re-appropriating it. At least the other weighty tome from a well-known British university has a secondary sense that we do agree with: An enthusiastic and skilful computer programmer or user“.

Disclosure: Jenny List used to work in the dictionary business.

Field Trip! Hackaday Visits Pimoroni

If you have a Raspberry Pi and have any interest in its peripherals, you may be familiar with the grinning pirate logo of the British company, Pimoroni. The Sheffield, UK based outfit first established a niche for itself as one of the go-to places for much of the essentials of Pi ownership, and has extended its portfolio beyond the Pi into parts, boards, and components across the spectrum of electronic experimentation. Their products are notable for their distinctive and colourful design language as well as their  constant exploration of new ideas, and they have rapidly become one of those companies to watch in our sphere. On our way up to Newcastle for Maker Faire UK, we passed close enough to the Pimoroni HQ to be able to ask nicely if we could drop in and have a tour.

[Paul] showing off some of the Pimoroni attention to design detail. This artwork is hidden behind a display panel on the finished product.
Paul showing off some of the Pimoroni attention to design detail. This artwork is hidden behind a display panel on the finished product.
The Pimoroni HQ can be found in a nondescript unit with a discreetly placed sign on an industrial estate after a short drive through the city from the motorway. Inside it’s the same as thousands of other units, a set of offices at the front and a cavernous warehouse behind, except this one is filled with the kinds of goodies that get our blood pumping! And we’re told this toybox warehouse is soon to be joined by another nearby unit, as the Pimoroni business is expanding.

Our guide was the company co-founder Paul Beech, whose work you will be familiar with even if this is the first time you’ve heard his name;  Paul was the designer of the Raspberry Pi logo! The company is not exclusive to that platform but it’s fair to say they have a strong connection with the Pi, starting in 2012 with as their website puts it: “One laser cutter and a kettle” on which they produced the first of their iconic PiBow laser-cut sandwich Raspberry Pi cases.

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Ourselves As Others See Us Through The Lens Of Traditional Media

When I presented myself at the SHACamp 2017 info desk bright and early on the first full day of the camp, I was surprised to find that I was to be assigned a volunteer along with my press badge. Because of the way our community is sometimes covered by the traditional media, it was necessary that any journalists touring the site have a helping hand to ensure that they respect the privacy of the attendees, gain permission from people likely to be in any photographs, and generally not be idiots about the whole Hacker thing. I pointed out that I was working for Hackaday and not The Sun, and that as an active hackspace member and former hackspace director I was very much a part of the community attending SHA 2017 who would simply be wasting the valuable time of any volunteer assigned to me. Fortunately for the next volunteer in line they agreed with my point of view, so one of the angels was spared a day of my breakneck walking pace and impenetrable British colloquialisms.

It’s interesting therefore a few weeks after the event, to investigate how it was portrayed through the eyes of people who aren’t coming as Hackaday is, from within the bubble. To take a look at that disconnect between what we know about our community and its events, and how the traditional media sometimes like to portray us. Are they imagining the set of a Hollywood “hacker” movie in which assorted geniuses penetrate the computer systems of various international institutions by the simple expedient of banging wildly at a keyboard for a few seconds, or will the reality of a bunch of like-minded technology enthusiasts gathering in a field for several days of tinkering and other fun activities be what makes their reports?

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Is Your Child A Hacker?

Parents in Liverpool, UK, are being prepared to spot the signs that their children might be hackers. The Liverpool Echo reports on the launch of a “Hackers To Heroes” scheme targeting youngsters at risk of donning a black hat, and has an expert on hand, one [Vince Warrington], to come up with a handy cut-out-and-keep list. Because you never know when you’re going to need one, and he’s helped the Government so should know what he’s talking about.

Of course, they’re talking about “Hacker” (cybercriminal) while for us the word has much more positive connotations. And it’s yet another piece of ill-informed media scaremongering about technology that probably fits like so many others in the “People are having fun. Something Must Be Done About It!” category. But it’s still something that will probably result in hassle for a few youngsters with an interest in technology, and that’s not encouraging.

The full list is reproduced below, if you’re a parent it seems you will need to watch your children if:

  1. They spend most of their free time alone with their computer
  2. They have few real friends, but talk extensively to online friends about computers
  3. Teachers say the child has a keen interest in computers, almost to the exclusion of all other subjects
  4. They’re online so much it affects their sleeping habits
  5. They use the language of hacking, with terms such as ‘DdoS’ (pronounced D-dos), Dossing, pwnd, Doxing, Bots, Botnets, Cracking, Hash (refers to a type of encryption rather than cannabis), Keylogger, Lulz, Phishing, Spoof or Spoofing. Members of the Anonymous Hackivist group refer to their attacks as ‘Ops’
  6. They refer to themselves and their friends as hackers or script kiddies
  7. They have multiple social media profiles on one platform
  8. They have multiple email addresses
  9. They have an odd sounding nickname (famous ones include MafiaBoy and CyberZeist)
  10. Their computer has a web browser called ToR (The Onion Router) which is used to access hacking forums on the dark web
  11. Monitoring tools you’ve put on the computer might suddenly stop working
  12. They can connect to the wifi of nearby houses (especially concerning if they have no legitimate reason to have the password)
  13. They claim to be making money from online computer games (many hackers get started by trying to break computer games in order to exploit flaws in the game. They will then sell these ‘cheats’ online).
  14. They might know more than they should about parents and siblings, not being able to resist hacking your email or social media
  15. Your internet connection slows or goes off, as their hacker rivals try to take them down
  16. Some circumstantial evidence suggests children with Autism and Asperger’s could be more vulnerable to becoming hackers.

Reading the list, we can’t help wondering how many Hackaday readers would recognise as perfectly normal behaviours from their own formative years. And some of them look ripe for misinterpretation, for example your internet connection slowing down does not automatically mean that little [Jimmy] is selling a billion compromised social media accounts on the Dark Web.

Particularly concerning though is the final association of computer crime with children who are autistic or have Asperger’s Syndrome. Picking on a minority as a scapegoat for a public moral panic is reprehensible, and is not responsible journalism.

Still, you have to laugh. They remembered to include a stock photo of a hacker using a keyboard, but they’ve completely missed the telltale sign of a real hacker, which is of course wr1t1n9 11k3 r341 1337 h4xxx0rzzz.

Via The Register.

Liverpool skyline, G-Man (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons.

Owning Hacker As A Word

To a casual observer it might seem as though our community is in the news rather a lot at the moment. It’s all about hacks on our TV screens in the soap opera of Washington politics, who hacked this, whether those people over there helped that lot hack the other lot, or even whether that person’s emails could have been hacked on that server. Keeping up with it as an outsider can become a full-time job.

XKCD 932 says it all. (CC BY-NC 2.5)
XKCD 932 says it all. (CC BY-NC 2.5)

Of course, as we all know even if the mainstream journalists (or should I refer to them colloquially as “hacks”?) don’t, it’s not us they’re talking about. Their hackers are computer criminals, while we are people with some of the hardware and software skills to bend technology to our will, even beyond what its designers might have intended. And that divergence between the way we use the word in a sense of reappropriation and they use it in disapprobation sometimes puts us in an odd position. Explaining to a sober-suited businessman as the director of a hackspace, that no, we’re not *those*hackers can sometimes  feel like skating on thin ice.

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The Art of Making A Nixie Tube

Three years ago we covered [Dalibor Farnby]’s adventures in making his own Nixie tubes. Back then it was just a hobby, a kind of exploration into the past. He didn’t stop, and it soon became his primary occupation. In this video he shows the striking process of making one of his Nixie tubes.

Each of his tubes get an astounding amount of love and attention. An evolution of the process he has been working on for five years now. The video starts with the cleaning process for the newly etched metal parts. Each one is washed and dried before being taken for storage inside a clean hood. The metal parts are carefully hand bent. Little ceramic pins are carefully glued and bonded. These are used to hold the numbers apart from each other. The assembly is spot welded together.

In a separate cut work begins on the glass. The first part to make is the bottom which holds the wire leads. These are joined and then annealed. Inspection is performed on a polariscope and a leak detector before they are set aside for assembly. Back to the workbench the leads are spot welded to the frame holding the numbers.

It continues with amazing attention to detail. So much effort goes into each step. In the end a very beautiful nixie tube sits on a test rack, working through enough cycles to be certified ready for sale. The numbers crisp, clear, and beautiful. Great work keeping this loved part of history alive in the modern age.

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Yak Shaving: Hacker Mode vs Maker Mode

When I start up a new project, one that’s going to be worth writing up later on, I find it’s useful to get myself into the right mindset. I’m not a big planner like some people are — sometimes I like to let the project find its own way. But there’s also the real risk of getting lost in the details unless I rein myself in a little bit. I’m not alone in this tendency, of course. In the geek world, this is known as “yak shaving“.

The phrase comes obliquely from a Ren and Stimpy episode, and refers to common phenomenon where to get one thing done you have to first solve another problem. The second problem, of course, involves solving a third, and so on. So through this (potentially long) chain of dependencies, what looks like shaving a yak is obliquely working on cracking some actually relevant problem.
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