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The Walled Garden

Of hackers and Apple.

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The following is a translation of an article by Sam Sundberg. It's sort of a movie review but it brings up other things as well. Further knowledge about the movie isn't necessary.

Lisbeth Salander is back on the silver screen and along with her comes one of the most unbelievable fictional hackers ever created. Competition is tough. Whilst real hackers usually look like Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, hackers in the movies are played by the likes of Sandra Bullock in The Net, Angelina Jolie in Hackers, and Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

And maybe you can accept that. There's no requirement moviemakers choose actors with stereotypical appearances for their roles. And Noomi Rapace may be yet another hacker actress who looks a bit hot, but she fills the Salander role with such a monotone sociopathic energy she cannot be doubted.

The hacking doesn't usually have much to do with reality either. Gawking at a computer screen is hardly the stuff thriller movies are made of. The characters that rain down on the screen or spin forward like a train departures timetable has become the standard depiction of cracking passwords. When Salander's hacking was shown as a bunch of ordinary windows with registry excerpts and PDF documents it was almost believable.

The trouble lies in Salander's computer preferences. Watching an elite hacker sit at the keyboard of a Mac is like watching Dirty Harry threaten two-bit thieves with a water pistol. Macs aren't computers for hackers - they're for writers, designers, celebrities - people who prefer a technology with minimal resistance over one with the greatest potential.

And it's not just in the movies Salander chooses Mac: author Stieg Larsson makes a big deal out of her aluminium Powerbook G4/1.0 GHz with a PPC 7451 with Altivec, 960 MB RAM, and a 60 GB HDD. And it sounds convincingly hi-tech.

'Watching an elite hacker sit at the keyboard of a Mac is like watching Dirty Harry threaten two-bit thieves with a water pistol.'

But hacking is more about attitude than technology. And Apple's constricted operating system is nothing for the Salanders of this world. To get hung up on technology specifications and miss the whole Linux and open source culture's importance for the hacking profession is to make Salander more unbelievable than she already is.

Millions of readers and moviegoers have tried to reconcile Lisbeth Salander's erratic behaviour with a psychologically believable profile. Despite the Harriet Vanger and Zala mysteries it's Lisbeth who remains the central puzzle in Larsson's detective novels. With patience and fantasy you can get almost all of the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. Sex, violence, superpowers? Hey cool. But a Mac? Seriously? When it comes to creative licence, you still have to draw the line somewhere.

Sam is right about one thing and wrong about another. He's wrong in thinking hackers don't use Apple hardware. Nowhere in the review is there mention of what OS Lisbeth Salander is running. Linus Torvalds was given a powerful Apple desktop but he's not running Apple's OS on it. Attendees to the myriad security conferences around the world probably use Apple's boxen more than any other brand. And some of them may even run Apple's OS.

They might run it because they want to build hacks for it. They might even have it on a secondary boot they seldom use. Otherwise they're probably using their Apple OS install disc as beer coaster and running OpenBSD. Then too they're going to have access to Windows systems because that's where the action is. But having access to Windows doesn't mean they believe in it anymore than having a G4 PowerBook indicates Apple's OS is the ultimate hacker platform.

But Sam is right about the constricting nature of the world of Apple. Apple's world is very much a walled garden. And inside the garden the word 'freedom' doesn't have very much meaning. Both the vendor Apple and their Kool-Aid™ drinking fanboys perpetrate, accept, and defend this notorious lack of freedom. If Apple make a big blunder - and they make lots of them - then the fanboys come out en masse to defend their company, fantasising long shot explanations for what's happened. This can't be the way freedom and hackerdom are built up.

The original world of the Z80 and 8088 PCs was the forerunner of the hacker world of today. CP/M and MS-DOS were the diametric opposites of Apple's hermetically sealed systems. There were no user guidelines in the world of personal computer hardware interfaces disguised as real operating systems. You did anything you wanted and you had to cherish that freedom.

That freedom has passed onto the world of open source today. There's a need for a secure commodity OS kernel and both the BSDs and Linux pass the test. They even give users the ability to tweak their own kernels. That's freedom and no hacker would ever have it any other way.

Apple don't stand for freedom. They stand for recycling the same old products, jumping the shark, and silencing all critics. Their current Snow Leopard gives users no ability to explore the hundreds of thousand of files installed on their computers and even goes so far as to place stumbling blocks in their way if they dare venture out from inside the walled garden.

And that's hardly a hacker environment.

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