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Protection against the outside world

I have just finished reading Firewall by Andy McNab. Mr McNab is ex-SAS and I was originally drawn towards its book on account of its title and the back cover's suggestion that its plot revolved around the world of cyber-crime and hacking. Many books with Firewall in the title will give geek-info on TCP/IP, IP chains, protocols, stacks, exploits, spoofs and so on. Admittedly the more juicy books are usually found in the reference section of the bookshop. Having read Mr McNab's book and found the paltry extent of its juicy detail about hacking, I considered writing a letter like this:

Dear Mr McNab,

I bought your textbook "Firewall" and have now read it cover to cover. I appreciate the pre-amble and post-amble, surrounding the information on cracking into GCHQ systems, but I'm more interested in how precisely I could start to monitor secret governmental international spying operations.

I took the books advice and bought an IBM ThinkPad. However, I'm a little unsure of which of its software programs I should use to decrypt a firewall? How do firewalls get crypted in the first place? Which leads do I need - I only seem to have a power lead and mouse lead...

I think your book would do well to include an index for quick reference...

Ok. So I should not have really expected the book to contain anything meaningful on computer hacking. It was so enjoyable, I even managed to ignore the little voice in my head which laughed out loud at Mr MacNab's naive view on modern day computers. I had to assume that he'd chosen to mention the ThinkPad having seen its name in a magazine, rather than because he'd ever owned one.

Computer geekery aside, the book was an interesting insight into the world of the solo operative. With description of MI(insert number here) techniques and how to handle oneself against hardened criminals, I found the book both interesting and somewhat bleak. The reason I've started my book review in this part of the website, rather than the review section, is because of my reaction to its contents. 

In the first part of this piece, I've already revealed myself as a bit (lot) of a computer-nerd. In truth, I'm a softie at heart. Software is my trade... everything about me is soft (well, nearly everything). So, it struck me as interesting that the principle character in the novel chose, on a number of occasions, to lie down and take abuse, rather than fight back. It is generally believed that rolling over and playing dead - waiting for an attack to finish - is a sign of weakness, and that the strong person would jump up and defend themselves. I suppose it depends on the attack you're facing, but this book illustrated that fighting back is not always as big a sign of strength as one might believe.

The reason I always feel soft, especially when I have chosen to put up with some sort of attack, rather than hit back, is that I've never really felt physically up to the job of being a hard-man. Every boy dreams of being a member of the A-Team, but I'd not even pass the medical. If Hannibal and his gang wanted anything from me, it would probably be for me to add the sleeping draught to B.A.'s milk so they could get him onto the plane to South America to rescue a haulage company from some local bandits... but I digress.

Perhaps the worst part about choosing to sit out an attack is when you feel that it's your only choice. More recently, I have felt that I can successfully stand up for myself if necessary. However, I have a vivid memory of one incident in my childhood which will always epitomise, for me, the feeling of having to wait an attack out in the hope that it will end before any damage is done. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I'll begin.

Picture the scene. It's around lunchtime in Leeds - a good time of day for it to be. A couple of young lads, perhaps 11 years of age, are out on Woodhouse Moor, a park near their school. One such chap was yours truly, the other a fellow called Matthew Latto. We were minding our own business, walking along the path, when we caught sight of a man in leather jacket, with a strange hairdo. I think he may have had a Mohican hair cut, or perhaps was completely shaven - these details are not important enough for me to have remembered them over the last 17 years.

Maybe we stared at the man, whose appearance was structured to catch one's attention, or he was just spoiling for a fight. Either way, we received the customary challenge:

"Wot you looking at?" he demanded.

Feeling that I should be the spokesperson for our two-man outing, and believing that I might be able to avoid this turning into a bloodbath, with a little gentle smooth-talking, I answered.

"Nothing. I was just talking to my friend..."

Good answer. It seemed that he was going to be satisfied with this. But, you see, I had not finished. I was going to ingratiate myself with this chap by throwing an insult at the aforementioned friend - making him the butt of a shared joke between us, and bringing Mr Yob and Master Frieze into some sort of lasting friendship. I concluded my answer just as he walked past.

"... he's a bit of a weirdo."

I'm sorry I said that. I'm partly sorry, because Matthew had done nothing to deserve the epithet "Weirdo" and I'm also sorry because this phrase appeared to trigger a reaction from the B.A. wannabe with the Mohican. Perhaps he was offended that I should insult my friend in public. Perhaps he thought I was telling my friend that I thought the weirdo was the fellow with the ugly mug and the killer attitude. Perhaps this guy was going to do what followed anyway and just happened to choose the moment after I said "weirdo". Whatever the reason, the next thing I knew, the man was upon me. He clearly meant to fight me, so I listened to the calm and rational voice in my head. This is a trick I've learned in difficult situations. Try to leave your body behind and let a detached brain process talk it through what it needs to do.

The nasty man punched me. My head told me to hit the floor. I suppose I was trying to show him that he'd won the fight. I certainly hadn't planned to play Karate Kid at that point and Matthew was too busy looking on in amazement to help me out. A number (and it was probably a small number) of kicks were delivered from Mr Attitude's boots, some making contact with my top lip (I remember that clearly) and then I was declared a conquest and the assailant wandered off. He won by one fall and a submission. I suppose I'm lucky that my disembodied head is not mounted on a plaque somewhere.

Throughout the ordeal, which probably lasted all of 15 seconds, I knew how it felt to be the victim. I had to lie back and wait and see what was going to happen to me because I had exhausted any control I had of the situation when I took the initial punch as a cue to play at being the football. It was a strange feeling. Perhaps I was Gandhi for that time, or perhaps I was just a stupid kid getting a good hiding from a punk in a park. Either way, I had to face the world afterwards.

They say that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So, here I am, 17 years later, sitting in my dressing gown and writing the story. I don't feel stupid or even that I could have done anything different back then (except, perhaps, keeping my big mouth shut). Maybe there is strength in knowing when to lie down and play dead. I'll not be putting it on an application form for the SAS, though.

01 March 2002
Ashley Frieze