Hardwood Gaming

A friend once told me that it is not so much the big events that our children will remember as they grow, but the longstanding traditions.  For me, the best-held tradition is without question Sunday dinner. I don’t mean the meal, though my food preferences still lean towards the New England style I grew up with.  I refer instead to the hour or two of family time I had each week before that meal was served.cribbage

Every Sunday after church, my grandfather came over for dinner.  I don’t recall what my siblings did during those hours, but he and I spent them playing games.  Occasionally it was checkers or something else, but mostly I recall cribbage.  Unless you’re a Red Sox fan, you probably haven’t even seen a cribbage board, but we played endless matches.  As I grew older, I was even able to win some.  And I my head still resounds with the count.

Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six, and a pair is eight.  Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six, fifteen-eight, and a double-double run of sixteen makes twenty-four.  The occasional fifteen-two and let your voice fall.  And once, in all those games, twenty-eight, a single-point short of the perfect hand.  I remember dumping a pair into my grandfather’s final crib in the hope that I could count out before he ever got to see them, knowing that as dealer he was guaranteed at least one point for last card.  It was strategy.  It was probability.

It was relationship.

My children grew up a hundred miles or more from their grandparents, and we never made Sunday dinner a tradition. Sandwiched between homework and the press of outside commitments, even our family supper hour is rushed.   And we stopped playing games back when Arthur and Candy Land grew old.  Is it because they feel unfairly challenged?  I don’t know, but I’m confident they could beat me today if they had taken up the challenge in their youth, as I did.

It’s too bad Minecraft graphics make me feel nauseous, because that might be the best way to interact with the next generation these days.

Exercise Beyond Futility

Frank used to be an engineer, like me.  Mechanical.  He worked at the Arsenal years ago, where they built that “bunker buster” bomb that helped win the first Gulf War.  The one where we were the good guys, defending Kuwait from aggression.  He told me his story as we walked the treadmills at cardiac rehab.

It’s what we do at rehab, swap stories.  There are a lot of stories in that room, earned during the active lives of men decades older than I.  Those who aren’t talkers usually have their wives in the waiting room, and I hear stories from them.  I learn how this one had a double bypass; that one, congestive heart failure.  We talk about treatments, and medications, and side effects.  I talk about my stent, and they marvel at how quickly a man can return to full activity after a heart attack these days.  “You look so good,” they say, and I thank them.  What else can I do?

Because I don’t feel so good, some days, and it never feels like full activity.  The nurse said I could push it this week, and I made it up to 4.3 miles per hour for half of my twenty minutes on the treadmill.  4.3 used to be my resting pace, for times when I couldn’t run any farther.  These days, I don’t run at all, and I haven’t even mowed the lawn myself in a month and a half..  I used to get up early on my days off to write; today, I get up early to take my meds, and stay up because I refuse to let my body stop me, even if my efforts lead to no more than a dozen words.

The restrictions placed upon me by the world seem worse by far than those imposed by my body.  I needed a doctor’s note just to return to my desk job, and now I find I will need a second note before they will let me travel by air for a customer meeting.  I monitor my eating of salt, of fats, of cholesterol, not because my blood pressure or cholesterol levels were high before my heart attack, but because people I love will worry if I don’t.  And I take my meds twice a day, every day, without fail, knowing my body will warn me if I forget, because I feel pretty good if I forget.  My heart rate is suppressed, my blood pressure low, and I feel best when they let me drive them back up through exercise.Piper_Super_Cub_N158FJ_02

I am pounding away on the exercise bike when Frank walks up to tell me about his loss.  He used to be a private pilot, he said. The Arsenal had a fleet of planes at its disposal, and they let their Aviation club borrow them for the cost of fuel and maintenance.  Frank describes them for me:  Cessna’s and a Piper Super Cub, and other planes whose names I don’t recognize.  Frank loved to fly, but they won’t let him do it any more. After his heart attack, they wouldn’t let him renew his license.  That seems deeply sad to me, but Frank seems happy just to share his story with me.  And I’m glad he can be happy.

At the same time, I’m not Frank. He is retired, and if he wants to sit and talk, or read, or watch TV, he can do so at his leisure.  I have a job, and a mortgage to pay, and two kids to put through college.  I have twenty years before I get to where he stands today, and stories to write before I get there.  So I’ll write my dozen words, and a dozen more after that.  I’ll go to rehab and work until I can run again.  I’ll work until I can mow the lawn, and shovel snow in the winter, and hike the Adirondacks with my wife.  And I’ll get that second doctor’s note.

I’m going to fly.

Photo “Piper Super Cub N158FJ” by Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Opening Lines

Like God Himself[1], a strong opening line foretells the end of the story, though we may not see it at the time.  This is in addition to the standard requirements that the opening paragraph needs to introduce a character in conflict, and my personal requirement that an SF opening should give some indication of the speculative context of the story.  For novel-length fiction, I think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the gold standard[2]:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In twenty-three words, Austen establishes the primary concern of her novel:  marriage and the assumptions that people make concerning it.  I have often heard women talk about the limited choices a woman was given in the period in which Austen wrote, and as a male reader I am immediately drawn to the way she demonstrates an equivalent way her society was manipulating men.  Since this is a novel-length work, Austen is able to focus on theme rather than conflict in her opening sentence.  For short fiction, one must necessarily move more rapidly, as in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

Here I find an off-screen event has left the main characters in conflict between what they know has happened (Macomber is a coward) and what they are willing to admit.  This mirrors the ending, where we are left with a different conflict regarding Macomber’s death and the accident the remaining characters are willing to admit.

For my personal story, I think I must instead reach back to a story I like less, but which has no less of a great opening line, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…”

The Worst of Times

Thanks to some unexpected health issues, I find myself limited in stamina, and have had to exert myself to meet my minimum weekly obligations here and on Critters.  I have in fact written very little in the past month, and have finished nothing.  And while I hold high hopes for my friends in NaNoWriMo this year, I am not even going to attempt it myself.

This persistent state of exhaustion has led me to delay the second part of The Hard Work of Sex Equality in Fiction, which I had planned to post as soon as I finished one of my stories-in-progress with a female protagonist.  I have tried multiple times, but find myself unable to sustain the energy level needed to hear their voices and write their words. Until I can actually do this, I cannot possibly tell you what I learned while doing it, so you’re going to have to wait.  Fear not, however, you are not forgotten.

The Best of Times

Enter the greatest opening line which I, in my humble-yet-accurate opinion, have ever penned:

Fifteen meters is a long way to fall, even in Martian gravity.

I  have lamented in the past the difficulties I have had selling The Clouds of Mount Olympus, from which this quote is taken.  A big piece of my sadness is this opening line, which introduces risk (conflict) and setting without beating you over the head with either.  Most of the time I find myself needing complex or compound sentences to establish conflict and context right away.

Clouds was first rejected in 2011, but I kept plugging away, leveraging Duotrope to find new venues who had not yet considered this story.  Ten days before my heart attack, I applied Andrea’s Rule to this piece and sent it out to Goldfish Grimm’s Spicy Fiction Sushi.  And it sold.

The Clouds of Mount Olympus is scheduled for inclusion in the November issue.  They let you read things from their site for free, but if you like what you see you should really send them some money to keep them in business. They take all major credit cards and Paypal.

… And it Gets Better

This past weekend, I received an email from an assistant editor of Asimov’s, telling me that she would like to purchase “IT Came From Outer Space.”  I shouted to my wife so loudly she thought I was having another heart attack.  Yes, it’s only a short poem, and Asimov’s is known more as a publisher of short fiction than poetry, but it’s also a major market for SF[3].  That’s pretty much guaranteed to get any novitiate writer’s heart rate elevated.

Do these first few lines foreshadow a great story?  I can’t say until we get to the end, and I’m hoping that’s still a long way off.

[1] Isaiah 46:9b-10a:  “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done,…”
[2] Unusual comma use aside, I still love this sentence.  And I am well aware that fiction of the day could open in a more leisurely manner than modern stories, which is why I’m not concerned that the opening scene focuses on Mr. Bennet and his wife rather than the protagonist (Elizabeth), and the absence of Mr. Darcy until much later in the story
[3]Sadly, even major markets aren’t included on the magazine aisle of my local grocery store or pharmacy any more, but I did find it at my local Barnes and Noble. There is also an electronic edition, and subscribers get their copies up front.

Who Mourns for Abby Sciuto?

My heart broke last week when NCIS jumped the shark in its 2014 season premiere, “Twenty Klicks”.

SPOILER ALERT:  If you haven’t seen the season premiere yet, you may want to watch it online.  Then again, those who do may never watch another NCIS episode again.


Sorry, Gibbs.

I felt bad when actress Cote de Pablo (Ziva David) left the show last season, but I had some hope for Ellie Bishop, who seemed to be a cross between genius-probie McGee and straight-arrow Kate with a dash of Abby sweetness.  Besides, we still had Abby, everyone’s favorite problem solver and perky goth.  Then the scriptwriter introduced a computer virus as a plot device and managed to break every rule of rational computer science ever invented.  And sweet, brilliant Abby Sciuto was left looking like a technology fool.

As a professional computer geek and aspiring writer, I’d like to use this episode as a roadmap for everything not to do when introducing a computer virus into your plot.  For comparison, I’d like to use the real-world Stuxnet / Flame malware which attacked the Iranian nuclear program in 2009/2010.

Malware Attacks Favor Secrecy

When the virus hit NCIS[1], the computer screens all over the office went wild. This is perhaps the classic symptom of a Hollywood computer virus, and it is totally absurd.  Unless this symptom is the intent of the malware in question, the best way for malware to spread is to remain hidden.  Since this would make for a boring episode, I can understand why scriptwriters ignore it, but it’s still annoying.

For comparison, the Flame malware stayed hidden for a significant period of time, spreading slowly from machine to machine until it reached its eventual target, computers loaded with software that was used to program the high-speed centrifuges in the Iranian nuclear program. Only then did its presence become obvious, and even then the attack was subtle:  it caused the centrifuges to shake themselves apart during use in a manner that could have been misinterpreted as a hardware failure.

Malware Attacks Need an Attack Vector

In the season premiere, Abby triggers the virus by loading data from a memory card onto a laptop.  The laptop is isolated from the network, and has even been placed in a Farraday cage to prevent it from connecting to WiFi, but somehow it escapes over the power cord (!) and spreads to the rest of the building.

Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that laptop computers generally have a battery and don’t have to be plugged in to operate, this is perhaps the most absurd misapplication of technology I have ever witnessed.  You cannot transmit malware unless the recipient computer has a defect that causes it to execute the code somehow.  This can be done by human engineering (i.e. a trojan horse), by being attached to a piece of shared data (i.e. a virus), or by transmission over the network (i.e., a worm).  Unless you are using specialized network hardware to piggyback LAN traffic on top of your power cabling, malware can’t travel through the power cord, and even then it can’t use the powerline network unless it is physically connected to your computer.  Sorry, the malware might have mangled Abby’s lab PC, but it would have stopped there.

For comparison, Flame was transmitted on the ubiquitous USB keys people use these days to transfer large quantities of data between computers.  Since Microsoft Windows has an annoying habit of executing everything it sees as if it were a legitimate application, these systems were vulnerable to attack over this vector.  I still want to scream every time I get a new USB key and Windows wants to load a “driver” from the device.  Linux doesn’t do this, and while it implies that people who use Linux have to be able to load their own drivers when they need them, it’s a whole lot safer.

Malware Can’t Attack Everything

When the virus attacked NCIS, not only did the computer screens go wild, but the office lighting suddenly went dark, and the phone system failed.  Even if they use VOIP for their phone system and have a centralized system to manage their lighting, this still wouldn’t really make sense.  The reason?  Any normal business has separate systems to handle these three distinct functions, and they are generally implemented with different technology stacks.  The only way this virus could have affected computers, lights, and phones would be if they were all vulnerable to the same exploits[2] — but if NCIS knew about these exploits (to write the virus), wouldn’t they have already patched their own computers to protect against a similar attack?  Moreover, why would the NSA allow NCIS to connect to its secure  network when they were under an apparently unstoppable malware attack?

In the real world, any particular piece of malware is designed to attack  a single kind of computer system.  nVIR attacked early Macintosh systems, and Stuxnet attacks computers that run Windows.  It’s possible to write code that can attack multiple computer platforms, but it’s hard, because each piece of code takes up space, and the larger your malware code, the more likely it is to be detected.  I consider JavaScript to be a particularly evil vector for malware, because its ubiquitous, runs on multiple platforms, and the demands of ignorant users have resulted in it being essential for day-to-day work on the internet.  Even then, competent IT personnel keep their systems “current” with system patches, and it’s mostly the inexperienced home users who get hacked.

The Moral of the Story

When possible, protect yourself from malware by using less-vulnerable operating systems like Linux or OS X.  Practice safe computing by keeping your computers currently patched, and use antiviral software like ZoneAlarm or Kaspersky on your PC.  And don’t believe everything you see on TV.

Beyond this, if you are a writer who wants to include malware in your stories, the following process may be useful to insure that you don’t invent a Hollywood virus like the one that sank NCIS:

  • Decide first what your villain wants the malware to attack.  There are plenty of targets, and the number will only increase as our homes and vehicles get increasingly connected to network monitoring and control systems.  At the same time, any given attack will typically affect only one kind of computer system and people who use a different one won’t be affected.
  • Decide how the malware is going to affect the computer systems it attacks.  Once you have broken into a target system, it’s relatively easy to make it crash or operate more slowly, so these kinds of effects might come from a young programmer just learning about malware.  Tools that collect and return security information to your villain (e.g. keyloggers) might come from organized crime, because it takes a more sophisticated group of programmers to develop them.  And the really advanced techniques are probably coming from national governments with the money and power to fund these software teams.
  • Decide what vector(s) the malware might use to break into the computer system in question.  Most successful attacks will require one or more human errors to be successful:  a defect in SQL Server, for example, might go unpatched because of a bad business decision, leaving data exposed to the attacker.  Or someone might introduce a trojan horse into your network by opening an attachment in an email, which subsequently transfers itself as a worm inside your corporate LAN.
  • Once you’ve designed a plausible bit of malware, set it loose on your protagonist, and tell the tale.

There are a lot of bad people out there coding bad software, so we shouldn’t have to stretch our reader’s suspension of belief to include a nasty bit of malware into our plots — but you have to do it right.

[1] There are technical differences between the a trojan, a worm, and a virus.  All are malware.  People who get picky about the difference between a worm like Stuxnet and a virus like nVIR are being pedantic, so I don’t care that they called the attack a “virus” in the season opener.
[2] Well, the lights, phones, and computers are all plugged into the power grid, so maybe the magic power cord exploit was used on all three.