Why All the Fighting: A Reflection on Violence in Video Games

My feelings have evolved around video games and violence since I was a younger man. I’m going to try very hard not to make this piece be reductive and oversimplified – I’m married to a psychiatrist and am a psychology major myself, and I take pains to note nuances. This is not a “playing violent video games make children into school shooters” sort of post, although I believe there’s a relationship there. This is also not a “ban all violent video games” post – consenting adults have a right to whatever sort of entertainment they want, and anyway violence in video games is only part of a larger tapestry of violent media. What I hope to make this is a piece on the lazy, extreme over-use of violence in games and how it’s warping and desensitizing us when it comes to actual, real violence in the world.

Background

It’s not a stretch to say that I grew up on video games. I was born in 1973 and came of age in the era of the earliest home consoles. I’ve played hundreds of hours on so many platforms – Atari, Coleco, Apple ][c, MacOS, Windows, iOS, Nintendo everything. I’ve played all types – strategy (Zelda, StarCraft), puzzle (Myst, Tetris, Portal 1/2), action/adventure (Rygar, Mario Bros., Blaster Master), massive multiplayer online (World of Warcraft) and of course combat (Quake, Doom, Marathon, Mortal Kombat, Contra). My children are frequently awed at how good I am at any game right off the bat, even though I remind them of the enormous amount of practice I’ve had in my 44 years of life. My wife and I have had many conflicts over the amount of time spent gaming. My interest surges now and again as new games are released – I had a massive World of Warcraft problem years ago, mercifully kicked after our third child was born. More recently have spent many hours playing the new Zelda game and Cities: Skylines. My current mission is to decide, based on exhaustive research, which VR headset to purchase so we can delve into that realm. 16 years ago I even wrote my Masters thesis on the effects of video games on modern society. So you could say that I’m just a little into gaming. (As I write this it seems excessive even to me, except for the thesis part which I’m kind of proud of.)

I have passed this interest on to my children. Ever since he was 3 my son (now 13) has gamed – first it was iOS games like Angry Birds, then games on the Wii/Wii U, although I’ll say that many of these are very social games that we played as a family (Wii Fit, Mario Kart). He was delighted to discover my old Gameboy Advance SP tucked away in a cupboard, and most recently he bought himself a Gameboy Color just for completeness. He’s now buying up Pokémon games old and new (Sun and Moon, Black and White, etc.). A couple of years ago he bought a Nintendo 3DS XL, and last year (with a heroic midday mall assist by Dad) he bought a Nintendo Switch.  I’m still coming back from that one with his mother. Suffice it to say that he’s totally into gaming, retro and otherwise, and it’s something we share. My 10 year-old daughter is now into simulation games – The Sims 4, Cities:Skylines, and House Flipper are her current faves. She and I built a gaming PC to better support this habit, and we really enjoy playing together and working out problems. It’s a bit early to say about our nearly 7 year-old, but she does really enjoy playing Sims with her big sister and has watched me build an online city as recently as this morning. As an avid gamer, I’d say my work here is done.

Perspective

In absolute terms we are living in a time of unprecedented peace. The rates of violent deaths per 100,000 have declined dramatically – for context, scroll through the 18 slides of this presentation: The Visual History of Decreasing War and Violence. Go ahead, do it – I’ll wait.

Fascinating, no? What it must have been like to live hundreds of years ago, especially in non-state societies. Not only was there no modern medicine, which meant children and women dying as much as men, but there must have been wars and tribal conflicts all the time. In an environment like this even children must have been exposed to seriously violent injuries and deaths, in real life – what must this have done to their psyches? The stats alone tell us – they grew up to be violent just like the previous generations. It wasn’t until organized nation-states and democratic government came about relatively recently that things really settled down. Now you rarely see two democratic states go to war with each other, and the death rates even from our modern wars and genocides are nothing in comparison with prior centuries’. It’s a very good, very non-violent time to be alive, historically speaking!

Yet here we are – in the U.S., 154 mass shootings have happened since 1966.  Our firearm-related injuries and deaths topped 31,000 in 2017, and 733 children aged 0-11 were killed by guns. Over 21,000 people commit suicide here annually, more than half of them using guns. (Firearm suicides are 90% effective, whereas other methods are 90% ineffective.) We have a President who has literally advocated violence against protesters at his own rallies, and turned a blind eye to (even praised) racist thugs beating brown people. Reduced or not, violence surrounds us in our news and society, and I don’t think there’s anyone arguing that it’s a healthy thing.

The Popularity of Violent Video Games

Now let’s get back to video games. The story that prompted this post was about the major PC game platform Steam and a leak of data that “allowed observers to generate extremely precise and publicly accessible data for the total number of players for thousands of Steam games.” Unlike TV viewership, platforms like Steam don’t typically release statistics like these, regarding them as competitive secrets much like Netflix regards its own ratings numbers. But a flaw in some of Steam’s coding allowed outside developers to figure these numbers out quite precisely using some nifty math. (Caveat: It’s an incomplete list since the leak was only for games with “Achievements”, so games without those are not represented, but most major games have Achievements so we can take this as a fairly accurate list.) Take a look at the top 20 games:

Top 20 Steam Games.png

It’s easier to list the games above that do not include violence as a core gameplay mechanic: Portal 2, Sid Meier’s Civilization V, Rocket League, Portal. That’s it – four games out of twenty, just under 46 million players (fewer in absolute humans since undoubtedly there’s overlap). That’s only 12% of the players in the top 20 games that favor non-violent games over violent ones.

Note: Garry’s Mod is a bit of an outlier here, since it’s a modification of a shooting game (Half-Life) that turns it into a physics simulation. Normally I think physics simulations are super-cool (see: Kerbal Space Program), but if you watch YouTube videos of gameplay you’ll see that a) the player carries some sort of gun in front of him/her constantly, and b) people still use it to model violent scenarios and/or shoot things. It also lacks an ESRB rating because it’s technically a mod and not a standalone game, Therefore I’m going rogue and classifying it as violent. 

Again I will say that I’m not heading in a “ban all violent video games” directions. Gaming is escapism and fantasy, and there’s validity in that mode of entertainment. Games have ratings just like movies, and ostensibly games rated “M for Mature” are not that easy for young kids to purchase. But anyone who has spent time playing online or watching Twitch can tell you that young kids are swarming over the most violent games, and more often than not their parents are allowing it. This has a self-sustaining effect on multiple levels – because the community overwhelming lives in these top games, everyone goes there to play online. Because the games are so widely played and have been for years now, a generation of game developers has grown up predominantly playing violent games. Because these games are generating tens of millions of dollars in revenues, more than some Hollywood blockbuster, we see major development houses being risk averse and channeling their resources into violent sequels or new titles that remain violence-based. Search for “gaming industry running out of ideas” and you’ll see articles dating back 8-10 years or more – once this became a huge-money business developers got seriously lazy. Trouble is, “lazy” equates to “violent,” since that’s what they know and that’s what sells. Not to mention the rampant sexism! I encourage you to watch the entirety of “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” for an eye-opening look at the sexism and underrepresentation of girls and women in gaming.

The Role of Parents

The range of parental involvement runs the gamut – many worry about it, some ban them outright, and others give their children complete, unsupervised access to all games. You might think, given my history, that I’d be on the more permissive end of the spectrum, and relative to my wife I am. We both play games, I more than she, and we’ve of course allowed our children ample access to platforms and games of their choosing. BUT, there are definite limits. During the school year we don’t allow gaming on weekdays, and on weekends we restrict it to 30-60 minutes per day. Most importantly, however, I’ve declared a ban on violent, gun-based games (with an exception for Zelda: Breath of the Wild due to the fantasy nature and lack of actual guns; also, that game is a total masterpiece.) I believe that it’s every parent’s role to become thoroughly familiar with the content of the games their children are playing, and not to take their word for it. If we’re responsible for the TV and movies they watch we sure as heck better be responsible for the content games and YouTube videos. Because being familiar with that content means being able to have a conversation about some of the more edgy material that lies within. In our house we’ve had interesting car discussions on the difference between Link shooting fantasy monsters with a bow as compared to a more realistic Fortnite player picking up a sniper rifle and picking off shooting other players in the head at a distance. (Language matters. Realism matters. Talking in the car matters!)

Why have I done this? Firstly, I’ve become hugely anti-handgun in my old age – ever since the Virginia Tech shooting I’ve been a proponent of stronger gun control, handgun bans, assault weapon bans, and generally raising awareness of the prevalence of gun violence in this country. The more I’ve written about and been active in this cause the more that the normalcy of guns, shooting, and bloody death in video games has struck me as jarring and upsetting.  How can we as a culture write hang-wringing pieces about school shootings alongside glowing reviews of the latest gory shooters? What does it say about us that we tacitly accept the staggering amount of shooting and killing in fantasy realms while decrying the real-world equivalent? Watch a popular TV show or movie with this in mind and note how people wielding weapons and shooting “bad guys” is so common it’s almost offhandedly portrayed. Then watch a news report about Parkland and the horror of children lying in bloody pools in the hallways, or the Capital Gazette accounts of reporters stepping over their dead colleagues while fleeing the killing ground that was once merely their office. The contract is almost unbearable.

I cannot in good conscience hold these positions and also allow my son to play games like Fortnite or Call of Duty. Fortunately he gets this and is okay with it, mostly because he likes being an iconoclast at school but also because he’s internalizing our rhetoric about gun violence. But are all parents having these conversations, or drawing these comparisons so vividly? If we don’t give our children insight into the cultural contradictions we’re faced with literally daily, how will they develop the ability to discriminate between responsible escapism and irresponsible, bloodthirsty virtual atrocities? Exhibit A is the “active shooter video game” that was briefly released and then with drawn – what a fascinating contradiction that story was. So a game about stealing cars and shooting prostitutes is acceptable (and huge enough to have 4 sequels and counting) but a game that simulates shooting schoolchildren is somehow beyond the pale? Do schoolchildren matter that much more than prostitutes? What about a game where someone shoots up a school full of prostitutes? Or merely grown women? Or an automotive school? Would those be acceptable? This is not a binary situation here, folks – the spectrum of what is accepted and what isn’t is a very slippery slope indeed. (One could make a lot of money on a game that lies right on those boundaries; it’s only a matter of time before someone does.)

We need to decide, as a culture, not only how much violence is acceptable but what context we put it in and what kinds of discussions we have about it. I believe that living with a constant backdrop of “imaginary” shooting and killing leaves us dangerously desensitized to the real thing, something that our outsized reaction to the “active shooter” game paradoxically demonstrates. It’s as if we need to overreact to a game to remind ourselves that the real violence is truly REAL. If only our overwhelming reaction to the real shootings paralleled the universal condemnation of the fantasy depictions – absent actual crime scene pictures of dead elementary school students lying in pools of their own blood, we can all be outraged at pixelated renderings of them. We must never, ever allow our children to become inured to the real problem of gun violence in America because they are permitted to endlessly shoot and kill on a screen, and we should make every effort to withhold these experiences from them until they are mature enough to understand the difference.

Diversifying Platforms in Schools

I’ll put it out there right up front – I’m a huge Mac partisan. It’s right there in my URL, and my Twitter feed. I’ve been an Apple user, and fanboy, since my father bought us an Apple ][c in 1985. I have fond memories of proto-programming in Applesoft BASIC and using our Color ImageWriter printer with Brøderbund’s “The Print Shop.” Being an Apple partisan for over three decades has had it’s ups and downs, of course. When I worked at Xerox I was ashamed to tell anyone I even owned a Mac, but deciding to buy a few hundred shares Apple stock at $17 turned out to be an extremely good call.

Now I find myself at the helm of a large school district, with the power to decide upon the mix of machines deployed in our classrooms. One of my first decisions was to permit the purchase of a lab full of iMacs for a high school photography classroom – something that the previous purchasers would never have allowed. That sort of aversion to Macs is commonplace in many large districts, where the IT pros were all Microsoft and Cisco certified and a monolithic installed base was the Only Way to Go. But I’m a firm believer in two things: deploying the right platform for the job, and providing what I like to call “computing diversity” for our students. I’m not a big fan of the line of argument that says “Kids need to learn everything on Microsoft products in the classroom because that’s what they’ll be using in most of their jobs.” Can we really say that about today’s elementary and middle schoolers? When I was in sixth grade in 1985, my job title didn’t exist – the closest thing districts had were AV specialists and the people who bought copy machines. We did have one Apple ][e in my classroom that I programmed on using Turtle Logo, though – little did my teachers know what that would lead to!

My point is that in order to provide a diverse and technologically adequate educational environment today, we IT Directors have to let go of our MS-based monolithic fantasies and embrace the chaos that is multiple platforms. Fortunately there are tools that let us do this far more effectively than ever. Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and ChromeOS devices can all exist and be managed from a single pane of glass, or maybe two – but only with some planning and foresight.

My personal favorite is a dark horse – FileWave. I heard about it through a consultant friend of mine back when I worked in private schools, licensed it for managing my mid-sized fleet of Macs, and loved it. FileWave is a well-integrated, cross-platform MDM and  endpoint management system that gives your team the power to image, configure, and deploy devices with very few touches. My team uses it in conjunction with Apple’s Volume Purchasing Program (VPP) to purchase and install licenses for iOS apps onto a couple hundred iPads throughout the district. We also use it to manage our 130+ iMacs, and we’ve even rolled in the 10K Chromebooks for simple inventory queries. (FileWave says there are more hooks for ChromeOS coming in future releases.) We haven’t fully integrated the Device Enrollment Program (DEP) features that would allow new devices to auto-enroll and pull down configuration policies right out of the box, but that’s on the to-do list for sure. You won’t find FileWave on the Gardner Magic Quadrant simply because they don’t pay to play, but trust me – their tools are powerful. They even have a classroom management tool called Engage that looks extremely promising.

Other tools out there include JAMF (Apple products only!) and AirWatch, two major competitors with very similar feature sets. JAMF of course has the Casper DNA built into it, and is a trusted solution for lots of Apple-only shops. AirWatch is actually stronger in some respects on the macOS side than the Windows side, but as a VMWare product would obviously be of particular interest to any Dell-EMC-VMWare shop. If you go ahead and Google these products, or their competitors, you’ll go down the rabbit hole very quickly – when it comes to Enterprise Mobility and Endpoint Management tools, it’s still the Wild West out there, making the decision very difficult to approach. I’ve created large grids of feature comparisons for various systems, and I discovered something that won’t surprise you – not all of them are great. Many are truly niche players and can be dismissed out of hand, but it’s a worthwhile exercise to do the comparisons because it helps you understand the primary feature sets and differentiators, along with separating the wheat from the chaff. Possibly the most important aspect of any tool is that it’s made by a company that’s going to be around in a year or three, and not acquired or swallowed up or both by a big fish like Dell or HP! (Apropos of that, Broadcom’s acquisition of Brocade has left our district in a bit of a pickle.)

So think of your students first when deciding what to deploy, and think seriously about an EMM that can support multiple platforms! You’ll be diversifying your environment at the very moment when students need it the most.

 

The Fundamental Facebook Disconnection

“My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people, building community and bringing the world closer together. Advertisers and developers will never take priority over that as long as I’m running Facebook.” -Mark Zuckerberg

That’s one of the many statements our friend Mr. Zuckerberg made before Congress this week, in his apology tour and bar and grilling that he had to endure, again, because Facebook really screwed up, again. Along with his robotic delivery that was nearly devoid of humanizing “um’s” and “uh’s,” statements like this demonstrated just how disconnected he is from what truly happens on the platform he built. Because while “connecting people” may be the surface tension that holds Facebook together, it’s what goes on in the fathoms of ocean below that is the real story – one he and countless other social media platforms do not want to talk about.

To me the true picture of Facebook and its ilk is this disingenuous posture of servitude toward non-paying users, 2+ billion in Facebook’s case, while at the same time cultivating a cesspool of paying customers (advertisers) with a level of permissiveness and lack of supervision that is truly criminal. Because the very business model of any ad-supported site depends upon keeping the advertisers as or more happy than the rubes who flock there to share kitten videos. How? By allowing them to target, micro-target, and nano-target users for their ad content. Which of course is done by gathering as much data as possible about each user. This is dead simple when the users dumbly give up everything about themselves over the course of months or year. Every like, every article shared, every status posted, even every picture uploaded tells Facebook something about that person. Taken individually it’s not much, but taken all together and you have a portrait that is not just useful, but downright gold for any advertiser – or political firm. That’s the realization Cambridge Analytica had, along with many other companies I’m certain – that this data wasn’t just marketing gold, it was vote-getting nirvana. After all, what do campaigns want more than the ability to micro-target voters. These days you can know each household intimately through voter databases alone, but stitch that demographic info together with the “psychographic” profiles Facebook so assiduously collects and suddenly you have a voter database the likes of which have never been seen in American politics. EVER.

Now, the question of whether Cambridge Analytica actually had the technical chops to turn this data into ironclad voter profiles is an open one – I mean truly, who has ever had to analyze and synthesize voter data that is this deeply personal before? It’s a staggering task, whether we’re talking 10,000 profiles or the potentially 87 million profiles that CA managed to scrape up through their illicit collection app. But the fact that this happened shows two things: first, that the very existence of a dataset like the one Facebook is sitting on absolutely guarantees that it will be exploited in creepy and possibly illegal ways. This same principle holds for massive video surveillance networks, U.S. census data, NSA surveillance data, and IRS records. There is literally no way that a dataset that large and tempting is going to be successfully protected from bad actors willing to do anything to exploit it. Nothing in human history suggests we’re capable of that kind of integrity.

Second, no private company whose profits depend upon the continuous collection of personal data should ever be given control of the ultimate dataset. Again, there is nothing in the history of human corporate behavior that indicates this will end well. The real criminal act here is that Facebook refused to acknowledge that their immense aggregation of people’s intimate details was in any way a risk to humanity, society, or governments. No, Zuckerberg and his droids just kept vacuuming up the profits whilst spouting pap about their noble mission to connect people, because with Noble Motives Nothing Bad Could Ever Happen.

Facebook is not a new company – at 14 years old it is now middle-aged in Silicon Valley terms. They had plenty of time to internalize the fact that nefarious acts were certainly happening right under their noses with the data they’d collected. (Were collecting. Will continue to collect until Congress reins them in.) The idea that no one in the company said, “Hey guys, we should really put HUGE safeguards in place to make sure this stuff doesn’t get to Bad Guys” is ludicrous – of course someone said that, they just didn’t do anything about it. Or to be fair what they did was window dressing, because to truly limit access to the data would mean cutting advertisement profits dramatically, since they by definition wouldn’t be giving their paying customers the exact thing that made them pay money in the first place. Facebook’s data is their golden goose – any threat to the goose’s health is a threat to the company itself. On second thought, Facebook is the goose itself – any rhetorical attempts by Zuckerberg to separate “connecting the users” from the advertisements is just bullshit. The former could not exist without the latter, and the latter could not exist without utterly exploiting the former. Such exploitation had to happen in near-secrecy, because nobody who truly understood what they were giving away would have agreed to it. Oh sure, Americas are as cavalier about their online privacy as the Naked Cowboy is about his groinular region, but I think we’ve just seen where the limits of their tolerance are.

Which is exactly why government regulation must happen. There is no force on earth that is going to make Facebook-the-company become a corporate culture of personal privacy protection – it’s going to take a Ronda Rousey-style arm bar by the government to force them, under threat of extreme agony, to submit. Because submission is anathema to everything their survival depends upon. It’s the same way that banks and investment houses need regulation to stop them from doing stupidly greedy and illegal things in the name of obscene amounts of money – if the vampire squid needs to relentlessly jam its blood funnel down the throats of people in order to survive, you’d better believe it’s going to protect that goddamn funnel until its dying breath. Ads are Facebook’s blood funnel – they are the gigantic chute down which money pours. Zuckerberg’s billions are the bins at the bottom of the chute, and the careers of everyone at the company depend upon that chute remaining open and unobstructed.

A major problem here, as evidenced by the Senate’s embarrassing performance in the hearings, is that government is always ten steps behind industry when it comes to recognizing and preventing large scale abuses. Whether it’s the pharmaceutical industry, the tobacco industry, or the financial industry, you’re pretty much guaranteed a ten- or twenty-year head start at least before the dolts inside the Beltway figure out that the world has fundamentally changed and those billionaires giving them money didn’t exactly obtain the funds by being Eagle Scouts. (Sorry to be sexist, but let’s face it, it’s almost always men who are greedy dicks – Theranos notwithstanding.)

I’m still grappling with giving up Facebook permanently – I’ve done a thorough purge of my apps (I had well over a hundred), I’m exclusively using Firefox’s Facebook Container to access the site now, and I’m trying to build up this blog and my Twitter feed as alternatives – but I fervently hope that this moment is a pivotal moment in the history of Americans and privacy. Just as the presidential election awakened a huge swath of the electorate to the flawed mechanics of our electoral politics, so too should the Facebook enablement of (let’s be frank) a stolen presidential election awaken our understanding of how negligent the tech industry and our country has been about protecting our privacy.

 

Much ado about Faceplace

I just started listening to Ezra Klein’s interview of Mark Zuckerberg on his podcast (highly recommend, btw), which you too can listen to right here:

https://art19.com/shows/the-ezra-klein-show/episodes/0d5f503d-80d0-4e98-aa08-d29599957459/embed?theme=light-custom

I’m not through the whole thing yet, but what struck me (other than Zuckerberg’s weirdly robotic delivery) was this: There is no way in hell that Facebook is going to come out of this as a sovereign company. Or rather, I hope they don’t. Facebook should be regulated, and heavily.

Continue reading “Much ado about Faceplace”

My Journey to Home Network Nirvana – Phase II:Configuration

When we last visited this topic, I’d done the research and decided that I wanted a complete overhaul of my home network. As an internet-only FiOS customer, I discovered that I could ditch the ActionTec monstrosity of a wifi router and roll my own. Hallelujah! The promised land beckoned.

The Universe provided me with an amazing opportunity – two straight snow days in front of a weekend. I knew this was my moment – I’ll never have more unbroken days to muddle through this. Unfortunately a nasty head cold set in at the same time as the snow days, but the lack of work stress plus a steady stream of ibuprofen enabled me to power through. I truly am I hero.

As I write this, I sit on the other side of:

  • Receiving and configuring all of the necessary hardware
  • Installing Ubuntu Server onto the barebones PC
  • Configuring the IP table, DHCP, and DNS settings that will turn it into the screaming router of my dreams
  • Running a hard line from the (outdoor!) Verizon ONT into our Family Room
  • Cutting over from coax to Ethernet and realizing homebrew router success

In actual truth, the first three bullets were already done about a week ago, I just banged out the final two during the snow days. Sounds easy, right? WRONG. Oh my god it took years off of my life. Nothing, I mean NOTHING, was as easy as the Interwebs made it sound. Improvisation abounded, there was swearing in front of the children, and the house was without wifi for about two straight hours. Settle in.

(This may seem like a cautionary tale, and it sort of is, because what I undertook is not for the faint of heart, or the weak of command line skills. BUT, I’m here to say that it’s totally possible – you just have to be patient and waaaay more conservative than the online tutorials encourage you to be.)

PC Config

Piece of cake. I opened up my barebones PC, dropped in the RAM and 128GB SSD, and closed it back up again. Connected the VGA monitor, power supply, and USB keyboard, fired it up and away we went.

Installation

I initially followed this page to load the Ubuntu Server ISO onto a USB thumb drive, and it totally didn’t work. I blame UNetbootin, and so did the ISO – it even detected that I’d used that tool and warned me that it was associated with weirdness. After a few other aborted attempts I used the dd tool and rdisk to copy the image onto the drive and…it finally booted. I’m a king.

As I next-fested through the installer prompts, I found the next issues – the install kept coming to a grinding halt at the partitioning step. The SSD just wasn’t showing up. I even accidentally partitioned and formatted the USB installer drive before I realized that the other drive had gone AWOL. Ha ha, I said! Silly Doug! But in language that stained my shirt.

After several attempts at the same thing and hoping for different results (we all know what that means), I began to worry that I hadn’t seated the SSD properly, or even that the SSD itself was bad. I opened the little box back up and….I’d put it in the wrong slot! HA HA. Apparently this American Microtrends motherboard has the EXACT SAME SLOT for wifi cards as for mSATA drives. In my haste to get it going I’d totally missed that there were two identical slots, handily labeled on the board. SMH.

Once I’d figured that part out the install was a breeze. But I’d lost a good day in the process. AND, I had decided to set it all up on my desk, far from any hardwire connection. Time to relocate to the family room where that gorgeous ActionTec Frankenrouter is and plug in!

Services

Next stop was to follow the Ars Technica guide to building a homebrew router, courtesy of sysadmin god Jim Salter. I’m no stranger to the command line world, and nano has got to be the easiest CLI text editor ever, so I got through it. I even went the extra mile and headed over to Bigdinosaur.org to follow Ars god Lee Hutchinson’s guide to configuring Bind9 DNS and the ISC DHCP Server. He went into way more depth than Salter did with these services, and I learned a good deal. (I also planted a time bomb that blew up in my face, but that comes later.)

Pro tip: If you’re configuring services you’re not totally familiar with, and you think you may have done a few things wrong, take the time to understand the troubleshooting of these services, including which conf files to edit and where the log files are located. You may even want to explore utils that allow you to poke these services a bit. It MAY come in handy when it’s Go Time. Just saying.

Networking

In a nice, easy world, one’s Verizon fiber box (Optical Network Terminal, or ONT) is an entirely indoor affair, easily accessible in a handy closet. Not in my house. I discovered that the box I thought was the ONT is actually just the power supply, feeding power out through the foundation into the actual ONT, helpfully stuck near our AC unit and the garden boxes. This meant I was going to have to run an outdoor cat5e cable from the Ethernet terminal on the box through a hole in the house, then thread it above our new suspended ceiling and somehow feed it up through a pre-existing speaker wire route into our family room. I had done exactly none of this before, although I’ve seen it done a few times.

I made liberal use of the Googles and figured out that drilling the hole is the easy part – fishing the cable through and up a wall is more difficult. I ordered the materials – a 30m outdoor-rated cat5e cable, silicon gel, a 12-inch 5/8″ drill bit, and some pull string for cable fishing. I got the bit so large because I bought pre-terminated cables – I’m not about to press my luck by punching down my own RJ-45 ends, that Hard Mode where I come from.

I discovered to my joy that an old drainage tube was already poking out of a hole in the footer planks of our house, one which I’d cut during basement demo and could definitely yank out. Woohoo, premade hole! Except no, it wasn’t anywhere near wide enough for pre-terminated cat5e with snagless ends. And since I’d also discovered that the board wasn’t nearly 12″ thick, I used a 5/8″ spade bit I had instead of the monster auger I’d bought. Pro tip #2: 5/8″ isn’t wide enough for snagless ends. I’d like to take a moment to mention that all of this involved several trips inside and out, and outside it was a FOOT OF FREAKING SNOW on the ground. So just imagine me trudging with bad knees and doof-boots and you’ll have a picture of why it took me the better part of an afternoon to get this cable threaded through. All while my family watched and wondered why I was putting myself through this ordeal.

After too many hours I had drilled the hole, fished the cable through, pulled it in, clipped it to the outside wall of the house, plugged it into the ONT, and sealed the holes (there were two by now, stop laughing) with liberal amounts of silicon gel. It wasn’t pretty, but it got through. I’m still proud of myself for making that work. In the end, I didn’t need the big drill bit or pull string for ANYTHING AT ALL – so glad I shucked out those bucks.

Next step was to take the cable a few feet over in the ceiling and get it up into the family room. An hour and a half later, I had to call it – the snagless end was again making my life hell, and of course the actual hole that needed widening was right above a header in the newly renovated basement, making it nearly impossible to reach. Also the drill was just a bit too near to plumbing and electrical for my liking. Somehowafter a dinner of fusilli with meat sauce and no wine, I made it work. With my 9 year-old daughter’s help, we fished that RJ-45 end up and pulled it through. And to my great joy the hole in the plaster that my Leatherman’s saw had aggressively enlarged was entirely hidden by the wall plate. (Spousal placation is not to be underestimated.)

Going Live

Today after lunch I decided to pull the trigger – I called Verizon and had them cut over to the Ethernet port on the ONT. I had already regained access to my balky AirPort Exreme to make sure I could control those settings (turning off Back-to-my-Mac was the magic, mostly, another story altogether), and I was ready to ditch the ActionTec and go with homebrew.

Or so I thought.

The actual cutover worked, and the Linux box got online beautifully. DHCP address assigned, das blinkenlights on the port, and a quick apt-get update showed me I had a connection. Success! Until, that is, any client on our home network tried to get on the wifi. Then: no love. Thus began a two-hour stress-induced bender of tweaking config files, reading online tutorials, and learning a whole bunch of new shit that I really should have known beforehand. Guess what? I’m now way, way better at configuring my own DNS zones than I was before. Nothing like an irritated wife and restless, Roku-deprived kids to kick you into High Troubleshooting Mode.

Here’s what I knew: my clients were getting DHCP addresses, that much was working. I could connect to wifi, but with the “No Internet Connection” message, or “Resolving Host…” endlessly blipping in the browser status bar. To my semi-practiced eye, that could only mean that DNS was not happening. Oh, external DNS was firing on all cylinders – every dig or ping I did on in Ubuntu worked like a champ – but internally I was forwarding nothing. But, but, I’d followed Lee’s blog entry to the letter! I’d been so careful!

Get over yourself, Macdoug. Without a blow-by-blow account, here are a few things I found out:

  • It’s really, really easy to forget trailing periods and semi colons when copying config files – always double- and triple-check your syntax. I found several obvious misses.
  • bind9 is tremendously picky about syntax, and there are at least 72 different ways to write a zone file.
  • lots of people on the intarwebs think they know how to write a zone file, and most of them couldn’t be more wrong.
  • Lee Hutchinson, you may know a thing or two, but your zone file examples were a complete and utter disaster. Fie on you.
  • named-checkzone and named-checkconf are fantastic commands that you should always use before you go live with your DNS zones.

In the end what saved me was this page, which walked me through the creation of a basic zone file by copying the template and editing it as minimally as possible. You don’t say – I perhaps shouldn’t have hand-coded my forward and reverse zones from scratch? Kids, pro-tip: DON’T HAND CODE ZONE FILES. Unless you’re an absolute genius with bind and have done this a thousand times. I am the opposite of both of those.

My final zone file looks like this:


;
; BIND data file for local loopback interface
;
$TTL 604800
@ IN SOA ubuntu.<mydomain>.org. webmaster.<mydomain>.org. (
2017021029 ; Serial
604800 ; Refresh
86400 ; Retry
2419200 ; Expire
604800 ) ; Negative Cache TTL
;



; NS records
IN NS ubuntu.<mydomain>.org.



; A records



ubuntu.<mydomain>.org. IN A 192.168.99.1



;ns IN CNAME ubuntu




;@ IN AAAA ::1

See how simple that looks? Way better than what I had copied down from Bigdinosaur. And, more importantly, functional. Once I had both forward and reverse zones loading happily (thanks to tail -f /var/log/syslog, another useful command I should have known YESTERDAY) a quick restart and…magic. Router was functional! Devices came back online, wives were Tumblring again, and the children had all the Rokus. And I had to make Spicy Beef Tortas from Blue Apron because it was way past dinnertime.

Conclusion

The takeaway? This stuff is just messy – we’re not all sysadmins or Linux gurus, and it’s the rare geek who really, truly plans his or her way through a process like this. Learning happens when you use the ready, fire, aim method and just muddle through. If and when I do this again, I shall for sure check my confs and zones to see that they load with no errors, and I’ll be SO much better at threading wires through walls. One thing is for sure, and that is that it feels really, really good to have done it all and come out the other side a success. Check out this speedtest:

fullsizeoutput_4472

YES.

Update, 2/18/22:

Well, not long after this it all came to a standstill when I foolishly upgraded Ubuntu and some bug in DNS broke everything. After some troubleshooting (I think, it’s been a minute) I just gave up and reverted to the Verizon FiOS box again. Today we’re at probably 60+ devices, a Google mesh wifi network, Gigabit Ethernet, and that 9 year-old girl is 14 and owns her own iPad that must never, ever be disconnected. So the likelihood of me trying this again is…faint but real. pfSense seems like a much, much more logical option, though.

My Journey to Home Network Nirvana – Phase I: Acquisition

For a while now I’ve been thinking about setting up a custom home network l in our house to enable faster, more controlled traffic and better security. So I did a bit of reading up, and I discovered that Ars Technica has a great series reviewing home routers and comparing their performance to commercial ones. The bottom line: a homebrew router provides the best performance, especially for high-bandwidth connections. Intriguing – now that I knew, I couldn’t let it go. Visions of a home network closet danced in my head, with a custom-built router, firewall, media server, core switch, and a newer mesh wifi system like the Linksys Velop humming on all three floors. The germ of a plan began to form…

First I did some more reading. To my great satisfaction, it’s totally possible to ditch the Verizon-provided router and provide your own! I honestly didn’t know that the Verizon router was optional, I had thought I’d have to jump another router off the current one and do some double-NAT setup that felt really hinky. But since I’ve long since turned off the wifi on the Verizon router there’s no reason not to consider swapping it out for something that will give our house better performance, security, and customization. Pushing me further in that direction is that our current AirPort-based wifi setup is showing its age – my Extreme AC router won’t even show up in the AirPort util anymore, and I don’t feel like fiddling with it. Plus Apple is dropping wifi altogether, which means that the universe is telling me it’s time for a wholesale change. In phases, of course.

The fine print reveals a few caveats – turns out that only Internet-only FiOS customers can do this – bundles with phone, TV, or both need the standard router(s) Verizon provides, because of reasons. The biggest obstacle is that the Verizon Optical Network Terminal (ONT) is default configured to output over the coax cable, even though it has an ethernet port nestled right in there on the customer-accessible side. But by all accounts one can simply call Verizon and, with a bit of coaxing (or de-coaxing – see what I did there?) get them to switch the signal to output from the RJ-45 jack instead. Still a few steps between here and there, however.

Phase I is to acquire the necessary hardware. (Phase 0 is to check Mint and make sure my fun-money account is charged up. It is – auto-saving ftw! Also, I highly recommend Mint.) Since I now knew enough to be dangerous about building a homebrew router thanks to Jim Salter’s excellent Ars Technica article, last night I pulled the trigger. I ordered a barebones PC, a 120GB mSATA SSD, and 8GB DRAM. (I also had to grab a cheap VGA monitor, VGA cable, and USB keyboard/mouse combo because I’m a bad geek and don’t actually have any of those lying around.) I chose to get the 120GB SSD just like Salter, because I also have visions of running a Plex media server off of this box and loading it up with family photos and videos. (My children never, ever get tired of watching themselves in old home videos, and having Plex to serve those up from anywhere is another dream. 120GB will almost certainly not be enough!)

Phase II will be to download Ubuntu Serverget it on a bootable USB stick, and install it on the barebones box. Seems simple enough, even for a relative Linux newbie like me.

I’ll take pics of the setup when it all arrives, and document my journey through config and testing. First I’ll just configure the PC to be a router, DHCP, NAT, and DNS device, so it will pass traffic. Then I’ll get a long Ethernet patch cable and run it from the ONT to our family room setup directly above. Since I demo’d our recently-renovated basement myself and know where the speaker wire ran, I think this will be straightforward. I’m most nervous about the ONT changeover with Verizon – my worst fear is that I take my family offline for a day or two, which would be doubleplusungood. Also since I’ve recently learned, thanks to Circle with Disney, that we have nearly 40 devices hooked up to our wifi, and everything going down at once would be apocalyptic. The Internet of Things is Real, people! I’m still going to have to reconnect those devices to a new router system…good times await.

Next up: I’ll document my process of setting up the homebrew router and switching over to Ethernet. After that, it will be the process of choosing a new mesh wifi setup – not surprisingly, my new guru Jim Salter at Ars Technica has a great review of the current crop, and I’m torn. Stay tuned!

On Gadgets, Hacking, and Knowing What’s Going On

So the latest gaslighting to come out of Trump is about computers, which is something I happen to know about. Specifically, Trump responded to a question about Russian hacking inside of the US with this:

“I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of [the] computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”

In case it wasn’t clear to everyone, Trump is that old-man boss who wants nothing to do with computers, doesn’t understand them, and is therefore angry about and dismissive of them in a way that suggests the world would be better off if we did away with them altogether. This is an archetype because it’s true of a certain subset of people, and it doesn’t have to do with age – it has to do with one’s tolerance of, and interest in, complexity and how to tackle it. People like Trump have no tolerance for ambiguity – they either know something or they don’t, a fact is true or it isn’t, a situation is solvable or it isn’t – and out of self-protection this leads them to split the world into these binary categories.

The trouble, of course, comes in that this “whole age of computers” is not only here to stay, it has transformed nearly every part of our society, largely for the better. Their complexity is indeed a problem we struggle with every day, but we struggle because we have no choice – to do work without computers these days is unthinkable.

And here is what we’re reduced to – a few ignorant comments by PEOTUS and I’m defending the mere existence of computers in our lives. You can see how the conversation has drifted from where it should be – Russians hacked us, what are we going to do about it? – to “No no, it really happened, computers matter, derp derp.” Wrong-footed again by a man who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow when it comes to technology.

The complexity of computers, and the grid, and the internet, and the internet of things, is most certainly a problem. But it’s a problem we need to deal with head-on through the use of countermeasures, regulation, surveillance, and laws defining what sorts of attack constitute aggression and even declarations of war. The gray area is to be aggressively entered and filled, not filibustered and hand-waved away. That’s just plain dangerous and weak. Which is funny because this unfit-to-be-president individual thinks he’s showing strength. He’s not, and he’s endangering our country by derailing this conversation.