Saturday, March 13, 2010

More cheesy movie goodness

Since I've admitted to watching watching Ghostbusters II recently, I suppose it will do no harm to admit to having watched Hackers as well. Hey, I missed it the first time around. Skipped it, actually, on the grounds that I would have a hard time accepting its depiction of computers and networks or the inevitable Markov chain of random technical terms.

I was right about the cargo cult computing but, being perhaps older and wiser, much more able to bear it. It's a fun movie to look at, with plenty of whizzy graphics. Come to find out much of it was done with motion-controlled models, as the CGI of the time would have looked too artificial. In movie logic, dancing equations and morphing false-colored talking virus heads on 90s-era hardware are the most natural thing in the world, because they provide atmosphere.

The movie does a surprisingly good job of capturing the gray hat hacker ethos, however much it fails to convey the paint-drying dullness of most forms of hacking to (non-hackish) spectators. I've always found it unfortunate that "hacker" has come generally to mean not hacker programmer but black hat hacker or even script kiddie (fortunately, we have "geek" these days covering roughly the same territory that "hacker" used to). On that front Hackers may have done more good than harm. They also manage to mention the Dragon Book, so props for that.

I didn't pay much attention to the plot because, well, it didn't seem like that kind of movie, but I did react to two of the film's more famous howlers. One was the RISC/CISC confusion in the Pentium scene (if you want to know more detail than that, you should probably just watch the film). The other was when the main characters gush over a 28.8bps modem.

Ah yes, this is a blog about the web, isn't it? I'm getting there ...

As IMDB duly points out, they meant 28.8kbps, not 28.8bps. But that's just a typo and I heard it as 28.8kbps at the time. What caught me was that, more than the cassette tapes, minifloppy disks, haircuts and rollerblades, it's the bandwidth that sends the whole thing horribly off the rails. Never mind the rest of the implausibilities. They're supposed to be doing all this over 14.4 or slower? Oy. Guessing passwords, sure, if they're weak and easily guessed, but if they ever have to download more than a few hundred K, they're doomed.

It's the bandwidth that makes the modern web what it is. Thanks to YouTube and company, the video of the villain's face on the hero's laptop screen seems perfectly plausible until you remember what size pipe it's all supposed to be going through. In fact, much of the cyberstuff, except for the phreaking (the technology has moved on) and the social engineering (ageless and evergreen), is probably more plausible now than it was then, thanks to the web.

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