Reading Geek Night 19 Roundup

By: Tim


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The 19th monthly Reading Geek Night once again raised the bar in terms of the mixture of topics covered. This time we saw an introduction to hacker spaces and the hacker ethic, the return of development-oriented talks with a discussion on the CouchDB data store, and a long list of considerations to take into account if you're planning on cheating on your partner.

Oleg Lavrovsky: How to make things and influence hackers

Oleg is a hacker. Not someone who, in the mainstream media's view of the word, is a technical pirate, nor a golfing beginning or someone who chops wood. He thinks more along the lines of someone who's passionate about a "boring" subject: but who's opinion that a topic is boring actually counts? He's a keen member of the hacker community in the Oxford area, and has been involved with the Oxford Geek Jam and the recent Oxford Hackspace. And he is incredibly passionate about getting other people involved in similar ventures.

Oleg proposed a Hacker ethic: be interested, be dedicated, be creative; this is an ethic that's is carried through to a number of Hackspaces that have started springing up all over the country: London, Nottingham, Northampton, Oxford... Like-minded individuals get together and, in Oleg's words, "deconsumerise their time" (stop just sitting watching TV and get off you backside and actually build something.)

What you decide to build doesn't have to be anything amazingly creative or useful. Oleg cited an example a small gadget that is effectively a universal remote control, but with just a single function: it turns off any TV you point it at. It's a simple, personal idea that came from the mind of one man who didn't like the fact that he was surrounded by the consumerism of television; that same man is now running a successful, profitable company selling just that device.

Oleg's Principle(™) is seven-steps to hackerdom: deconsumerise your time, find your beginner's mind, make things yourself, find (or make) a hackspace, stretch your abilities, find hacker friends, and finally, influence others with what you build and do.


  • Stuart Ward is one of a group of people trying to get a Reading Hackspace off the ground. If you're interested, details are on Google Group, Facebook page, or on IRC at #reading-hackspace on Freenode;
  • James Anderson from Berkshire BCS details of which are on the BCS website;
  • Tim, also from Berkshire BCS, mentioned that the Reading Visual Basic User Group meets regularly, and the next meeting in Copa on Wednesday 18th May (now been and gone) will have two talks: Behavior Driven Development, and User Experience – Why and How.

Simon Thulbourn: Kick-ass apps with CouchDB & CouchApps

The variety of topics covered at #rdggeek each month is fairly all-encompassing — just as it should be! — but recently, there's been a surprising dearth of development-oriented talks. I strongly believe that the lack of focus on purely programming topics has led to #rdggeek's significant appeal to all-comers and continued growth but, even so, it was good to see that Simon had volunteered to talk on CouchDB.

For those unaware, Simon started with an introduction. CouchDB is one of the many emerging products in the so-called "NoSQL" arena: it's a schemaless, document-oriented datastore written in Erlang that is designed for local replication and to scale horizontally. Documents are stored as JSON blobs that, while schemaless, retain the ability to be queried through the use of views, defined as aggregate functions and filters, much like MapReduce. It also provides bi-direction replication across nodes, which means that it's possible to simply set up a large distributed CouchDB architecture, and have the system automatically manage all replication, data synchronisation and conflict resolution.

CouchDB's API is accessed purely via HTTP, with the standard GET, POST, PUT and DELETE methods mapping directly into the database's keyspace. Through this, CouchDB has managed to step beyond the realms of just a datastore, and become a complete application server in its own right through the creation of CouchApps. A CouchApp is effectively an HTML and JavaScript-based web application stored in and powered directly by CouchDB. Instead of the usual 3-tier stack of datastore / application server / browser, you're reduced to just two tiers: datastore + application server / browser. This also has the added benefit that you can scale your web app as easily as you'd scale CouchDB.

Simon's opinion was that CouchDB was, quite simply, as awesome as a shark with lasers. CouchApps, not to be left out of the awesomeness comparisons, is apparently on par with a shark with a jet pack. What more could you want from your datastore?

Alec Muffett: Sex, lies and instant messaging

Alec is an independent security geek; his day-to-day life revolves around making people aware of trouble they could get themselves into. He attempted to illustrate the security and privacy implications of today's common technology usage with a fantastically tongue-in-cheek presentation built around "how not to get caught cheating on your partner."

Alex had a huge number of suggestions, scare-stories and anecdotes with which to inform and entertain. Most of his sage advice came in the format of a series of dos and don'ts, for example:

  • Don't use secrets as passwords, as they can be cracked, and you don't want your secrets getting out;
  • Don't use Skype, as it has a nasty habit of resurrecting messages that were presumed deleted;
  • Don't use Twitter, as it's far too easy to confuse a D private direct message reply with an @ public one, and even if you do get it right, something like TwitPic is always public;
  • Don't use Facebook, as their privacy settings make it far too easy to make public something you really didn't mean to, and the homepage feed highlights those people it believes you're most interested in talking to;
  • Don't share your geo-location, because you don't want to be saying you're in one place while your phone is reporting you in another;
  • Don't use the family computer;
  • Don't use a work computer: automated backups and net monitoring make you communications history opaque, and there's too much of a risk that the machine can be replaced before you've had the chance to wipe anything incriminating;
  • Do create throwaway identities with common, unmemorable names;
  • Do use separate browsers for different things — Chrome for general browsing, Safari for things like banking and then immediate wiping, Firefox for anything illicit;
  • Do clear your browser history, cookies and Flash cookies, and use private browsing if the browser provides the facility;
  • Do use SSL everywhere you possibly can;
  • Do properly decommission old hardware: repeat wipe hard drives, remove phone SIMs and, if factory reset doesn't work properly on your phone, drive over it a number of times;
  • Do remember that all this is just as relevant for your phone as for your computer.

The whole point of Alec's talk was not just to amuse, but also to simply make people aware of the digital footprints they leave lying around through day-to-day technology use. He also reminded everyone that there are some places in the world (such as China) where people have to go to these lengths on a regular basis, just to come close to the kind of technology access and freedom of speech that we take for granted.

And don't forget: if you are involved in some illicit affair, then the above advice applies as much to the other party involved as it does to you. Just because you've been über-careful, doesn't mean that your latest fancy-person has the same standards in cyber-security...

Next time

The next Reading Geek Night will be on Tuesday, 14th June, downstairs in Copa as usual. Further details are also available on the Reading Geek Night 20 Lanyrd page.

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