Unicorn hunting

December 8, 2014

It’s become a trope: the super-smart hacker, faced with a highly secure system, frantically hammers on the keyboard for a few seconds (if it’s a really tough job, with a few pauses to show a thoughtful face) then another burst of activity, and they’re in.

What is the factual basis for this trope?

Only the tiniest grain of truth. In the end, knowledge is power. There are some long-dormant bugs out there, called by at least one source Rare Unicorns. These are extremely difficult to spot, and once they’re found, difficult to keep secret for long. In this particular case, a bug present since Windows95 allows any attacker to run any code they wish.

So the fictional hacker character needs to have spent insane amount of time doing personal security research, and in so doing amassed a number of Unicorn bugs, and kept them purely to themselves (as opposed to, say, selling the secrets to Russian hackers and raking in millions) until the crucial moment in the story when this knowledge is needed.

There are several tools, including fuzzing, that a security researcher could use. But any vulnerability found against common software (like Windows) using common tools would be well-known, relatively speaking, and of no use to the plot. Instead, this mythical hacker would need to craft their own tools from the ground up and keep them purely to themselves (as opposed to, say, creating a security consulting firm and raking in millions)

So if you write a fictional hacker–what does their backstory look like? If it doesn’t involve tens of thousands of hours alone behind a keyboard, you might be falling for the same trap that causes screenwriters to put huge, flashing red “Access Denied” notices on screens.


Re-learning to type

November 29, 2014

I got a new gadget called either an iGrip or alphaGrip (both names seem to be used somewhat interchangeably). Keyboard_AG5_main2

This gadget is described as an ergonomic keyboard, though careful to avoid any specific claims about being less likely to cause, say RSI. Indeed, it lets you lean back in your chair and keep your hands in a game-controller-ish position. It uses rocker switches on the bottom for pinky + ring + middle finger, plus a little more mobility with the pointer finger moving to four possible spots. Thumbs also do lots of duty with a few letters on the top. To get some idea of the layout, this diagram shows the underside keys.

A few of the keystrokes are the same as QWERTY–left-hand pinky for A for instance–but overall it involves a learning experience. I just typed a 300-character phrase on a learn-touch-typing app at a wopping 4 WPM. The creator suggests an hour of practice daily for 30-60 days. [This posting was decidedly NOT done with the alphaGrip. Too soon.]

cheat8I had hoped this would work with my Kindle as a really convenient way to work on the bus, but that won’t be easy. Even with the right adapter cable, the Kindle’s USB port is non-powered, so in addition to the Kindle and the keyboard gizmo, I’d need to carry around a powered hub plus a battery. A 4-piece setup is too unwieldily. AFAIK there is no Bluetooth version of the alphaGrip.

So far, I’ve lasted about as long on this gadget as I did the time I popped off all my keycaps and went full DVORAK. We’ll see how it goes. -m



November 20, 2014

I’m working on a novel with self-driving cars, privacy compromises, a persecuted journalist, and chock full of human failure. So this week’s Uber news couldn’t be more relevant.

Uber is a pretty good approximation the infrastructure basis of how self-driving vehicle travel might operate one day. The downside is that pretty much every trip goes into a big database somewhere. Who gets to look at that database? If you answered ‘just about anyone’ congratulations, you get a gold star. If you answered ‘the execs when they go after a critic of the company’ then you don’t get anything, because you read the articles already. The behavior of the creeper CEO before and after the indecent only emphasizes the main point:

The technology issues are tractable. The people issues, not so much.


Field Report: writing on a Kindle

November 12, 2014

I’m searching for the perfect setup to use for writing “on the go”. Day job commute involves a light rail ride and a shuttle ride (each way), and I’d like to be able to use the time to write. Simple enough.

I already have a Kindle HDX 7, so why not use that? I picked up a Bear Motion keyboard+case for the same. I took it out for the first serious spin today.

Pros: it’s a good little keyboard. Switch it on and it Just Works. The case is of nice quality. The keyboard itself is fully detachable, held only with magnets about as strong as a good piece of velcro.

Cons: The case is a little bit flopsy, which leads to ergonomic issues. It has a kickstand, but my lap is not a complementary surface relative to kickstands. The keys are small but touch-typable. My shoulders are significantly more than seven inches apart, so that makes my arms angle inward, then bend parallel again at the wrists. Ouch. (In fairness, any 7″ form factor device is likely to have similar issues.) The keyboard itself requires a fn-key combo to type single or double quotes, characters which occur frequently in writing.

Commute to and from, with two sections in each commute: After three bumpy 2o-minute segments, I had laid down 643 words, which compared to my recent sad run rate, is pretty good. I didn’t attempt to write  fourth session because my wrists hurt too much.

So, writing–yay! Wrist pain–danger Will Robinson!!

If I could work out the ergo issues better, I would be very happy. It feels like I would need about a six inch stack of books on my lap to hold the detached keyboard, and then somehow levitate (or velcro to the seat in front of me) the screen at about eye level. Yeah, that’d do it.

On the app side, I’m using Evernote. I’d love for there to be something more Scrivener-like. I have more to say about apps later.

What are your suggestions for ergonomic writing on the bus/train?


Heartbleed and the new reality

November 8, 2014

A few months ago a bug that came to be known as Heartbleed made the rounds. This is a serious bug that affects the most sensitive parts of the public internet, making it possible under the right conditions for almost anything that’s supposed to remain secret to be available for the asking. Passwords, banking info, almost any other kind of personal info–all out there. Less obviously, the internal keys that run the secure infrastructure itself are also at risk, so even after the bug gets patched, affected systems could still be compromised (by someone who now holds a copy of sensitive internal encryption keys). So fixing the bug alone isn’t enough–also ALL the internal passwords need to be changed.

As usual XKCD has a great visualization of the bug.

There are several factors that put this into a different category than other bugs. If your Microsoft Word crashes, that’s annoying and potentially personally catastrophic if you lose your precious data. But that kind of bug only affects one user at a time. You could ignore it (as millions apparently do) or press the manufacturer for a fix.

Heartbleed affects everyone. It attacks infrastructure. Imagine the postal system suddenly having all envelopes turn transparent. Imagine the voting system suddenly no longer being private. We only squeaked by because the huge segment of the internet using the affected software was able to quickly update to a newer version (though some ‘firmware’ version burned into routers, printers, etc. are more difficult to update). Since then, other bugs in the same vein have surfaced. Imagine if multiples of these kinds of bugs hit at the same time.

I can imagine a scenario where cross-dependencies among multiple critical bugs get so tangled that there isn’t an easy way out. Scary thought, but this is just the beginning…

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Ebola outbreak as a technology failure

October 31, 2014

I’m not sure which is more horrifying: that tens of thousands are dead and dying from Ebola in Africa, or or that it appears that it was largely preventable with basic medical technology.

William Gibson’s quip about the future not yet being evenly distributed takes on a much darker undertone in this light.

Despite the rabid panic sweeping America now, Ebola is surprisingly treatable. As of this writing, every single person treated in America with 1) early diagnosis and 2) quality care has fully recovered. I understand that this requires delivering up to 20 liters/day of hydration to patients, which is difficult to manage even with a conventional IV. There are several vaccines and antivirals on the fast-track approval process, but everything I’ve seen indicates that just keeping organ systems from shutting down, and in some cases physically delivering antibodies to the bloodstream, is the most effective treatment. Different strains of the virus may respond differently, and yet it saddens me beyond words that even something as basic as medical technology is lacking in so much of the world.

The point: to a significant extent, technology is a management problem, and we, humanity, are terrible at it. Maybe that’s why this idea surfaces so often in my writing.

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Seven Sentences from page 7

October 26, 2014

All right, I’m easily motivated by cheap gimmicks. I’ve been tagged by the excellent John Murphy. Here’s the drill:

The rules are simple: Post 7 sentences of your work, start on page 7, count 7 lines down.

This is from a Silicon Valley satire that I’ve been churning through for a number of months (ironically slowed down somewhat by my Silicon Valley day job [since you’re wondering, no, the startup in the novel is nothing like the huge company that employs me]).

She's heard enough. Satoshi stumbles over one of the stupid
beanbags on her flounce out of Fedora's office. At first she
thinks the beeping sound is the annoying door sensor, but no,
it's her phone. A text message from an unknown number: "Don't
throw away your chance." Nobody who texts has this number.
Satoshi looks up, and Fedora's phone has received a text as
well. Fedora reads a text off the screen and flicks it away.

Page counts come from the Scrivener ‘Compile’ feature, Standard Manuscript Format for print.

In turn, I get to tag three other folks. Here’s to Miranda Suri, Vincent Jorgensen, and Effie Seiberg. (incidentally also a VP, Clarion, and Taos trifecta). -m

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Messy desk report for Q1 2014

April 2, 2014

…whereupon the Job Change craziness strikes with a passion. But routine is settling in, and so long as I can get myself to write on trains and busses, I should be able to finish the several things on my plate. Someone asked me recently, “how do you get so much done?” I had to admit that I don’t, not lately.

The desk: I have a standing desk configuration. Getting more serious about ergonomics, and now have a standing option. It’s the same cheapo drafting table I’ve had for a while, with a desk extender atop. It’s roughly IKEA-grade quality, but it gets the job done. That desk is large enough to feel spacious, but small enough that you can’t get too much crap piled on top. Right now, I have: a mouse, a trackpad, an ergonomic keyboard, a little grippy cable management thingy, a laptop stand, a wrist-rest, two sticky-pads, and one book–which if you’ve read previous installments of this column, you’ll recognize as insanely clean by my usual standards.

Now all I have to do is finish. Finish and submit.


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Friends with cancer

February 23, 2014

More and more of my friends are getting diagnosed with cancer. This is tragic in every sense of the word.

And here am I, blogging about it. Poor me–it must be rough having to go through all the pain and suffering of having friends with cancer.

“If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know,” I say, but so does everyone else. It’s not an information-bearing phrase. The truth is, there’s not much I can do, other than impotently rage, and perhaps write about it.

One day I run into a writer friend of mine at a writerly event. “I’m sorry that cancer is a thing your body is doing,” I want to say, but I feel bad about the prospect of saying something so cliché. Instead, I smile sympathetically, with a bit of a nod. “I’m here for you. I’m thinking about your terrible situation constantly,” my smile says. “I understand what you’re going through, in the abstract sense of one who hasn’t experienced it,” my nod adds. Friend smiles back, but it’s not the kind of smile that reaches the eyes. I wonder how many conversations Friend gets to have that don’t involve cancer. Probably not many, but I can’t think of anything else to say.

“How’s it going,” I ask, lamely.

“Not bad,” Friend says. Another non-information-bearing phrase if ever there was one.

I hate this. And there it is again–poor me, having to navigate the conversational pitfalls of someone else’s suffering. Now I feel bad about feeling bad, and again and again, recursively, until the spiral of grief threatens to overwhelm me.

“I know everyone says ‘if there’s anything I can do to help let me know,’” I say, “but I super-really mean it. Seriously, ask me to run an errand for you. Call me at 3 am, even if it’s only because you need someone to talk to.” Just because we live in completely different parts of the country doesn’t mean I can’t put myself out for you, right? But it still sounds flimsy, even with the explicit disclaimers. Because in all likelihood, there isn’t a fool thing I can do.

“Thanks, that means a lot to me,” Friend says. I wonder how many times that exact line have come up in post-diagnosis conversations, but it’s too depressing a thought to follow through to the end.

Not a thing I can do. Except write.



Messy Desk Report for December 2013

January 3, 2014
Tags: , ,

In which things reset.

I have a day job like 99% of writers, and this month brought change. It was a good change. I’m happy, and more importantly, can make mortgage and have enough left over for books and food. But job changes have a way of soaking up time from nearly everything else.

Especially writing. Especially maintaining a non-messy desk. Things are stabilizing, so I’ll keep this short and focus my time on writing stories. Commute changes will for more time to do this, if I play my cards right. More soon.

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