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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Messy desk report for November 2013

December 1, 2013

The desk has reached new heights of messiness, which coming from me is saying something.

It’s been a hectic time, as marked by a rare miss in schedule–there was no MDR for October. There are big changes coming in the paying-the-bills day job, which is stressful. I did not NaNo this year but did commit to (and successfully accomplish) a goal of having no zero-word days during the month. This is both a blessing and a curse, because it seemed to establish a baseline of a few hundred words a day. The episodic project is progressing slowly because of this, but mainly because I’m really terrible at writing episodes. Practice, practice, practice.

As part of the ritual of new beginnings accompanying the new job, there will probably be a large-scale office/desk cleaning in the near future. I’ll be on the train more–let’s see if that translates into more reading, or even better, writing time.

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How much is widespread surveillance chilling writers?

November 16, 2013

Nice look at this issue in the LA Times.

Of more than 520 American writers surveyed, 16% have avoided writing or speaking on what they consider controversial topics, and 11% “have considered doing so.”

I think part of it is the ridiculous power imbalance. Writers know better than most that having any player with so much easily-available information is ripe for abuse, as scandalettes like LOVEINT have proven. Doubly or triply so when oversight is cloaked in secrecy, which breeds corruption. Anyone even loosely familiar with cyberpunk/technothriller fiction (not to mention actual news coverage) has visions of early morning armed raids resulting in the seizure of all computers, tablets, routers, phones, pocket calculators, remote controls, coffee makers, extension cords, and so on–equipment never to be seen again. Makes you really think about your disaster recovery planning, especially if you assume, as most people now commonly do, that pretty much every online backup service is compromised and could at a minimum be frozen on a moment’s notice.

Think about how many important pieces of fiction have crucially pivoted on controversial topics or stances. Sucking the lifeblood out of that would be a huge blow to our culture. I worry about this often, though selfishly more about how it affects me personally.

Enough that when I’m working on a piece of cyber-satire, I have a pervading sense of someone looking over my shoulder. I write notes to the faceless handler(s) who are poring over mountains of keyword searches. For example:

It feels a bit weird to be writing this piece of satire, knowing who might be reading it as I go. I keep backups of things on Dropbox, and have at one point used AT&T as an internet provider, so you’ve pretty much got me covered. I apologize to any analysts who get to trawl through my rough-draft fiction that has to be triggering all kinds of keyword alerts.

Since you’re wondering, none of the people here are based on particular individuals, though if I’m doing my job right, they should seem familiar to native Silicon Valley dwellers. I also tend to avoid particular companies as satirical targets. Any code names I refer to here are completely made up, or widely available via Google searches, or both.

I have no particular insight into any classified anything. I merely read the news, know a bit about technology, and have a good imagination for how things could go. If you have questions about any of this, I’m happy to talk. Let’s grab a beer some time. Please don’t knock my door down and scare my children.

Your harmless, law-abiding citizen,

And yes, I’m fretting over even posting this on my blog.

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October 15, 2013

On this week’s This American Life, a fascinating tale of a false confession. If you write stories with humans (or human-analogues) you need to be a connoisseur of the soul. It’s shocking how easily we can be convinced of counter-factual truths simply by repetition combined with fatigue. Worth a listen. P.S. 2 + 2 = 5.

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Writing longhand

October 14, 2013

I’m starting a new longer project, and doing so longhand. I have a 100-sheet notebook (graph paper, natch) and am beginning to densely fill the pages. I counted 634 words on one side of one sheet, which means an entire novel-length piece can comfortably fit in one notebook. I haven’t done serious longhand work since roughly college days* . A few observations.


Seriously, this is cramping my style, literally. I’ve invested in a few of those funky-shaped ergonomic pencil grippies, and we’ll see how it goes.

I’m by no means a fast writer, but this slows it down even more. My high point over the past week was only both sides of one sheet, or ~1250 words. Not even NaNoWriMo-level output. At this pace (and this was my peak) it would take 71 days to write a 90,000 word draft. Then comes retyping.

But, at least so far, I’m happier with the writing. Going slower means that things seem to come together better, and the draft feels higher quality than starting out in a word processor.

But, I fear for larger-scale issues. There’s no document search here, people. Perhaps this will force me to embrace just writing, and fixing problems in post.

A blank sheet of paper is a lot different than a blank screen. Getting started on a new chapter requires flexing a different set of muscles.

Any writers out there like to work in longhand? What are your tips and tricks?


*(Not counting one 70-page disaster that I shall not speak of again)

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