Category Archives: Trube On Tech

Technology reviews, emerging trends, a programmer and device user’s perspective.

Snap Judgment: Way Down In Poke-Go

YessssPikachu

By now you’ve either been playing or at least heard of Pokemon-Go, an augmented reality app released last week that has people wandering around the real world looking to “catch ’em all.” I do not have a smart-phone, so my impression of this development is largely from observation of others and catching up on the news, but here are some thoughts in no particular order:

  • It seems oddly perfect to me that this property from the 90’s is what made augmented reality popular, or at least part of the conversation. There have been other games, including one by the same company, that have had a huge player base, but nothing has captured the imagination of people (or the media) quite like this.
  • There needs to be a better mechanism for non-players to verify public locations are gyms or Poke-Stops and give them the option to opt out. In the meantime our pastor has asked a member of the congregation who is playing the game to win our church’s gym so it doesn’t get renamed to something we wouldn’t like.
  • In that vein, there is a part of me that is tickled that someone won the Westboro Gym and renamed it “Love Is Love.”
  • There are privacy concerns, but my suspicion is this app isn’t really more intrusive than what other apps are doing, it’s just getting us to pay more attention, which is a good thing. Keeping the camera on all the time raises some obvious concerns, but ones we’ve needed to address for a while.
  • People need to use their phones more like a tricorder and less like eyes. You don’t see Spock staring into his black box without looking up around him. Otherwise you’ll end up like a red-shirt.
  • I do kind of wish I had the app so I could set a lure, then shoot people with Super-Soakers while yelling “Squirtle!” This would make up for the fact that capturing a Pokemon doesn’t involve fighting it, which seems wrong to me.
  • A video game that encourages exercise is not a bad thing, as long as people look where they are going.
  • I have yet to see people in the wild actually playing this game, though I see a lot of traffic about it on Facebook and Twitter, and I know a few people who’ve installed it, including one of them who told me it works while driving which seems … unwise.
  • It’s a bummer this is limited to smartphones and doesn’t work on my Kindle. Then again, I need to actually get work done and trying to capture a Charizard isn’t how I’m going to do it.

Over all, neat game though I imagine the novelty will wear off. But I am interested in the conversation it starts, and the next generation of games like this.

** Bonus points to the reader who gets the Gendo reference.

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10 Forward: DS9 – The Fallen (Video Game)

As a life-long Star Trek fan, there’s a lot to celebrate this year: a new movie, a new TV series, and the franchise’s 50th anniversary. For my own small contribution to the festivities I’ve decided to do a series of posts (one every week or two), detailing little-known corners of the franchise’s licensed (and fan-made) works. This week I’ll be covering the Deep Space Nine PC video game – The Fallen:

FallenTitle

Plot: In the last days of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor, a scientist named Terrel attempted to unlock the secrets of an orb of the Pah-wraiths, only to be forced to abandon the project when the orb became unstable. Six years later her secret lab is discovered aboard DS9 and forces within the Dominion, Cardassia, and the Cult of the Pah-Wraiths all seek to gather the three orbs of the Pah-Wraiths for use as a weapon, or to create a new wormhole. Playing as Sisko, Worf, and Kira, the player must find the missing orbs, and stop the forces trying to control the Pah-Wraiths before it’s too late.

Pros:

  • Well-versed in DS9 lore. The game itself takes place toward the end of the 6th season, but contains many references to episodes throughout the series including the mining operation on Jerrado (“Progress”), Kira assuming a Cardassian appearance (“Second Skin”), secret areas and defenses from the Cardassian control of the station (“Civil Defense”), the telekenetic abilities of the Vorta (“The Jem’Hadar”), and Dominion prison camps (“By Inferno’s Light”). The game also foreshadows the later events of the series including the final confrontation with the Pah-Wraiths, Dukat being possessed, and the Pah-Wraith cult.
  • The game is re-playable through each of the three main characters: Sisko, Worf and Kira. The storylines run in parallel but feature different levels and gameplay for each.
  • One mission involves exploring a crashed Miranda class starship. The level design for this sequence is excellent, climbing through a hostile jungle to see your first glimpse of the ship, fighting Jem’Hadar on the outer hull, then diving inside and having to work your way through submerged sections to a hidden lab.

FallenUlysses

  • Your default weapon is useful throughout the game and is good for almost all light combat encounters. This is good since the heavier weapons may not always have plentiful ammo.
  • Terry Farrell reprises her role as Jadzia Dax for the only time after her character’s death at the end of the 6th season.
  • The game uses a beta build of the Unreal Tournament engine, one of the first game engines to feature truly expansive environments. Both the Ulysses mission and the reveal of a buried Pah-Wraith temple move from tight confined spaces to expansive open levels. This engine was in a sweet spot for games of the era. Next generation engines would feature better graphics, but the level design was much smaller and featured more loading (see Deus Ex vs. Deus Ex: Invisible War). Even with its old and outdated graphics, the level design is on par with the best games of today. You can look out the window of Sisko’s office or the Promenade and see the rest of the station.
  • A mod for the game (titled Convergence) was created by one of the level designers for the original game, and includes another twenty or so levels of gameplay (on top of the 24 base levels). A lot of enjoyment for a shooter.
  • The music is atmospheric and chilling, and in MP3 format easily accessible in the game’s install directory. More than 90 minutes of DS9 game music.

Cons:

  • Avery Brooks and Colm Meaney were unavailable to provide the voices of Sisko and O’Brien. The Sisko performance is okay, but O’Brien is pretty terrible.
  • An early mission features an enemy that you need to scan with your tricorder before being able to shoot them. This can be a bit of a barrier to entry for someone just getting used to the game’s controls.

FallenCombat

  • The default auto-targeting doesn’t always work well. It removes options for destroying explosive containers to kill enemies by always targeting the combatants.
  • The story can feel disjointed and incomplete until you play through all three characters. Some missions, like the Ulysses aren’t explained well initially until you read through tactical briefings, and watch later cut-scenes.
  • Some people criticized the lack of multi-player, which would have been cool in a few places. For me the game doesn’t suffer without it.
  • The game isn’t easy to run on a modern system, though I was able to get it running pretty quickly by installing a program called nGlide. I’m re-playing on my ASUS Windows 8.1 machine with no problems so far.

Bottom-line: The game would be a reasonably good third-person shooter without the Star Trek trappings. Weapon balancing is pretty good, and requires a more considered and tactical approach. The level design is epic in feel, and there are lots of things for the DS9 fan to enjoy, including walking into Quark’s bar, talking conspiracy with Garak, and walking on the hull of a crashed ship (seriously, that is still cool 15 years after the first time I played it). The plot would have fit well as two-part episode of the show (and is partially based on the Millennium series of DS9 novels). Definitely the best DS9 game made for the PC and still fun today.

FallenOps

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Your Kindle Doesn’t Know How Much You Read

I write mysteries, and I know there are some people out there who like to skip to the end before they read the rest of the book. I’m not a big pain about spoilers, but this one has never made any sense to me. I’ve heard that for some people it eases the tension, or gives you an idea if you’ll like how the book turns out before reading the whole thing, but part of being a mystery writer is trying to build tension and interest, not reduce it.

SkipToTheEnd

But if my book were on Kindle Unlimited, then those people who skipped to the end would be making me more money.

So here’s what happened.

Last summer Kindle Unlimited changed its rules for how it pays out to authors from the lending library fund. Prior to the change, authors were paid by the borrow (if the reader read 10%). This system resulted in a lot of short books getting paid the same as longer ones. In fact, this happened to me with my Fractals You Can Draw booklet (unintentionally I might add). I made about $0.35 for every sale, and $1.35 for every borrow.

The new system was supposed to pay you by the page read (at a rate of roughly half a cent per page). But as it turns out the system was flawed. Kindle reported the number of pages read by the farthest position in the book, not by the number of actual pages read. So if your readers skipped to the end without reading anything else, instead of counting for just 2 pages, that read counted for the whole length of the book.

Scammers naturally took advantage of this, using click-bait techniques and phonebook sized dummy books to rack up as many “pages read” as possible. In February, Amazon limited the maximum number of pages to 3000, which could still net you a little over $12 a book.

And here’s how it affects indie authors like me.

For starters the scammers are taking a big chunk out of the total lending fund, which is a fixed pool we all fight for a piece of (you can read a great analysis of this situation here). And if the scammers are top performers, they not only get the pages read, but some nice bonuses as well. And they negatively add to the reputation that all self-published books are crap.

But the other side of the coin is that Amazon’s failure to write good pages read detection code affects authors who use “scammy” techniques to provide what they think is a better reading experience.

One of the best ways for someone who’s never read your book before to decide if they want to buy from you is to read as much as possible. So a lot of authors chose to put the Table of Contents at the back of the book instead of the front, since the eReader can take them straight to it anyway. This meant that the TOC wasn’t taking up valuable sample book real estate. And even those who didn’t make this choice deliberately may have inadvertently done it by using book conversion tools like Calibre. In fact, some older eReaders prefer the contents to be at the back, otherwise they can’t detect them.

All of my eBooks actually have a front TOC and a back TOC to have the widest range of compatibility. Newer eReaders, like my current Fire, render the TOC as a side-bar, giving me direct navigation. To take advantage of similar navigation techniques on older readers, both TOC locations were required. But I have a hunch that at least some of my pages read (particularly the 582 spikes), resulted from someone going to the back TOC before reading the book. Again, not the reason I put that TOC there (for a book that was published several years ago I might add), but a factor nonetheless.

Earlier this month Amazon starting sending quality notices to authors requesting that they reformat their books or have them removed from sale. Amazon later revised this policy, stating that the back TOC is not recommended, but not in and of itself a violation of the publishing guidelines. I haven’t received a quality notice for any of my books (and Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach is the only enrolled in Kindle Unlimited anyway, though that hasn’t necessarily mattered to those getting the notices). If I do get a notice I will give my strenuous objections for why I want to retain backward compatibility. And then I may end up reformatting the book anyway.

The funny thing is, if my book were purchased by a regular library I’d get a tiny chunk of that sale, once per book, not per read, or per pages read. Kindle Unlimited, as a subscription service, is a different animal, and I think authors are entitled to a chunk of that pie. But I’ve always looked at it more like the library model, a way for people to try before they buy, or to get my book to people who can’t afford it, but still want to read it (though this last falls apart a bit with a $120 a year service).

I think Amazon needs to act with a more nuanced hand and instead of painting all indie authors with the same brush, try to enact better controls for getting rid of crappy books. And they need to write the code to actually detect pages read, rather than try to punish others for their lack of foresight.

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Some other great articles on this subject are here and here. If all this is kind of making you annoyed with Amazon, there are many other great places to buy eBooks including Smashwords, where my latest cyber-noir mystery, Surreality, is available for all of your eReaders and without the nasty DRM.

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Information Glut

One of the details that struck me in watching some of the early X-Files episodes was how Mulder and Scully looked at the case-files. In the first episode Scully is reading a newspaper clipping that has been taped to a piece of paper. I remember preparing reports and research in highschool and early college. I tended to use very “dead tree” methods, photocopying articles out of books, printing out stuff from online, and shoving all of this material into large black binders.

How much things have changed in the intervening years.

Now my process involves a combination of Google searches and bookmarking web-pages, and downloading scholarly articles, cataloging them in Calibre, and sending them to my Kindle to review. As I’m preparing material for another book, I’m amazed at all the stuff I downloaded during the production of Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach that got thrown on a flash drive and never looked at again.

In addition to making me wonder what the plural of thesis is, looking at all of these papers (many of which are frankly far above my head even with the pretty pictures) I’m struck by how I’ve only scratched the surface of this subject. Part of me thinks at some point I should study another area of significance, maybe global warming, or even other areas of math. But the truth is this one field is so rich, and touches so many parts of life, science, and engineering, that I’m probably going to spend the rest of my life working on and writing about fractals.

One of the nicknames for a PHD is “Piled Higher and Deeper” meaning you know an incredible amount about a very narrow range of things. I’m not going after a doctorate, at best I might be trying to be the next Martin Gardner, but I still find myself amazed at just how much access I have to knowledge that would have seemed unthinkable 10-15 years ago. I’ve downloaded course slides from university classes in the Netherlands, dissertations from Germany, and papers from dozens of conferences.

I’m still old fashioned in some ways. I may load all this stuff onto a Kindle, but I keep a notebook handy to take notes. And I still refer to my old printouts, if for nothing else but to find the books and articles the material came from. And I write books as signposts along the way as a way of encapsulating what I’ve learned, for fear that the knowledge is somehow fleeting. I look back at some programs I wrote in highschool, or even a few years ago for programmer’s approach and wonder, how the hell did I do that (Green ink is very important not only for other programmers but for yourself)?

How do you compile your research? Is everything on the computer, or are you still a very physically oriented sort of person?

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Tools of the Trade

My mom was talking to me this weekend about a commercial she’d seen for a new car. It involved a group of people tossing their smart phones into a wood chipper, then being asked how they felt about it. One girl’s reply was that she felt a bit sick.

Personally I think I’d be looking for a bigger, cooler object to shred, like maybe an old desktop that’s given me trouble. And I would want back the $600 I paid for the phone (in the hypothetical world where I own a smartphone in the first place).

My relationship to technology is a lot like a carpenter and his tools. I work with all sorts of gadgets, and I do buy things so that I can have some specialized new functionality. Just recently I bought a $6 bluetooth keyboard for my tablet (after looking through literally 1000’s of options). But I don’t live on my gear (all appearances to the contrary), they’re just tools in my toolbox.

One of the first things I do when starting a new writing project is to put together my “go bag.” Typically this involves going to the thrift store to find something cool with all the right compartments I need (I have probably as many laptop/computer bags as some people have purses). My latest is an orange sport bag with a nice thin profile, lots of pockets, and a total cost of $3.

For my current writing projects, I’m trying to work without always carrying around a laptop. I have a couple of good on-the-go computers, but the boot-up time and battery life can hamper opportunities to write in odd locations. The kind of projects I’m working on now benefit from the ability to whip out a keyboard, type for fifteen minutes, then pack up. My tablet can carry large amounts of reading material, music, and media, everything I need to be productive in small bursts.

But as much as I work on computers or tablets, there are still tasks that call for old fashioned pencil and paper. I think a lot of authors romanticize fancy journals, leather-bound notebooks with wrap-around ties, something that looks like an ancient scribe that will lead you to the ark of the covenant. I’m susceptible to this as much as the next person, though I’ve divested myself somewhat of the notion that I’m going to fill these books with wonderfully profound short-stories or thoughts. Usually I just use them for taking notes.

This still can require specialized equipment. Because I have a small bag I want something small, sturdy, with a lot of pages, and a little cool looking. Since I’m taking math notation, I need a gridded notebook that meets these parameters (bought my first Moleskine brand notebook this week). I’ve heard that notation on paper can aid in retention of information, though truthfully it’s just as much about speed and not having to flip back and forth between what I’m reading on my tablet and my notes.

My point is, I carry around abilities, not gadgets.

Some of those abilities are purely entertainment based, and some are more practical, but the tools are not part of me. Short of worries about losing notes, having to replace items, or being worried about credit card information, these devices are just gear. It’s gear I trade in and out based on the needs of the moment. I make some effort to be connected, to check-in on social media, to tweet an appropriate number of times, and to write these posts, but it’s not the primary function of anything I carry. It’s the nail-file on my Leatherman. Occasionally useful, but not primarily why I have the device.

Maybe part of it is that I spread out my gear. No one device has all my contacts, music, pictures, writing, etc. I try to keep things roughly interchangeable, to allow for my cycling of moods between trying to carry the minimum possible, and the whole kitchen sink. And I like specialized devices rather than multi-purpose ones. I actually think there’s a benefit to something that can only do one thing, my eReader is still the device on which I do the most reading, not my tablet, because there are fewer distractions.

I worry as I write this that I sound anachronistic, out of touch with modern culture and devices. My refusal to own a smartphone already puts me dangerously close to the Grandpa class. Heck, my Dad has a smartphone, and loves it. But I think skepticism is healthy. Then again, you are reading the opinions of a bearded man whose dream is to live in a cabin in the woods. So take that for what it’s worth.

I think at the very least we should examine our relationship to devices from time to time. And if the thought of losing them makes us sick, maybe it’s time to pull back a little.

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I stand with Pear

I stand with the idealized version of a company who innovates and stands up for our privacy and civil liberties. On TV we don’t often see this company by name (unless they’re a sponsor) but we know who we’re talking about when we see a piece of fruit on a laptop. The Simpsons was cutting it pretty close with “Mapple.”

The real Apple, I’m not so sure about.

The Basics

These are very technical issues that I’m presenting in a colloquial way. But I think this situation is something that can be understood and thought about by anyone.

The FBI requested*  Apple’s assistance in unlocking the phone of one of the San Bernardino gunmen. Specifically they asked Apple to do the following:

  • Create a way for the FBI to guess the phone’s code by brute force (trying all possible codes) without having to type in the numbers or letters.
  • Disable any delay countermeasures that space out the time between guesses (i.e. Make it so the FBI doesn’t have to wait half an hour after five bad guesses).
  • Create a program that prevents the phone from erasing its contents after a set number of bad guesses.
  • Do all of these things without modifying the contents of the phone.

Apple CEO Tim Cook stated in a letter Apple’s opposition to the court order**. Their basic argument is the following:

  • A program to crack an encrypted iPhone does not currently exist. If they write one, there exists a possibility (however small), that the program will find its way into the wild and will be misused either by hackers, or even by unchecked government surveillance.
  • If you write a program to crack this one iPhone, you’ve written it to crack all iPhones. In Apple’s words “The government is asking us to hack our users.”
  • Complying with the order may set a dangerous precedent and allow for Government overreach.

Some Analysis

Here’s one thing Apple didn’t say: We CAN’T comply with the order.

If you’re technically inclined you should read this article from the Trail of Bits Blog. It does a good job of explaining encryption at all the various layers, what the government asked Apple to do, and how Apple could do it.

Basically there are two locks on a phone. The passcode which the FBI is trying to break, and the phone’s hardware key (stored in a couple of different places depending on the model of phone). You need both keys to decrypt the data, but you can get the hardware key if you get the passcode right. Trying to decrypt the data without these keys is basically impossible.

What Apple is saying is that they CAN write a program that will allow you to brute force guess the first key, which gives you the second key and access to the phone. The phone’s security CAN be bypassed. According to the Trail of Bits estimates it would take half an hour to retrieve a four-digit pin, a few hours to get a six-digit pin, and up to 5.5 years to guess a six-digit alphanumeric passcode. The FBI hasn’t mentioned which type of code they’re trying to crack on this particular phone.

Is this a bad thing?

Well generally, yes.

Apple’s taking a stand that they won’t write this program because to do so would expose their phones. But the fact that it’s possible for them to comply with the order suggests that someone else could write this program and expose iPhones in the same way. Apple didn’t give any estimates on how long it would take to engineer a program like this.

Basically, if Apple cared about privacy as much as they say they do, they’d make a phone they couldn’t crack even if someone asked nicely (though that sounds a lot easier than it is).

So why doesn’t the government write this program themselves if it’s so easy to write?

They need Apple’s digital signatures, and knowledge of the iOS operating system. A rogue program doesn’t just run on your phone. It needs to be verified, and Apple can write something the phone will recognize as authentic.

So it’s not so easy?

Well, the problem is this. Apple and the government are both very security conscious places. And they’ve both been hacked. That’s why Apple says they’re worried about bringing a program like this into the world. It could always get out. The problem is, so can digital signatures. And engineers can always be personally targeted. Many data breaches work at the human level, not the technological.

What do you think?

I think this is one of the worst possible cases for Apple to have to take a stand on. This was a terrible act of terror, the phone is owned by the shooter’s employer who has agreed to let the FBI try to crack it, and it’s possible the FBI could learn about other terrorists or even future attacks from the phone’s contents (though, then again, maybe not).

Tim Cook’s tone is alarmist and a bit strident. Even if you agree that privacy is important, you probably also think that law enforcement should have some ability to get information it needs.

But privacy really is important. Sure, we want to be able to crack the bad guy’s phones. But if we create tools to crack those phones, who’s to say that program won’t be used to crack the phones of people trying to do real good in countries with oppressive regimes.

Maybe what the FBI needs is the assistance of one Benedict Cumberbatch. He was able to guess the passcode of Irene Adler’s phone, thus removing any leverage she might have had over him. Her phone was literally “Sher-locked.” No, seriously. Check out Wikipedia if you think I’m lying.

I think Apple’s right to challenge the court order. These sorts of things shouldn’t be followed blindly without at least some public discussion of practical limits, and an understanding of the potential risks. But I don’t think either side has the clear moral high ground.

So I stand with Pear. They make a great uncrackable myPhone, even though the fruit is terrible.

PS. Thanks to Adam for his great thoughts on this issue and for starting a conversation that lead to a lot of good articles.

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* I’m using a nice term, it was a court order actually.

** If you read the whole letter, Apple’s pretty clear about how horrible the San Bernardino shooting is, and how they’ve made every reasonable effort to assist law enforcement.

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Chasing Technology: Worse Than Chasing Aliens

What do we tell young authors? Avoid publishing trends. By the time you write a book on the latest hot topic, the trend has long since passed you by. This happens on a smaller scale in blogging, a news topic may be relevant to write about today, but be yesterday’s news tomorrow.

Writing technology into your story can fall into the same set of problems. The X-Files got its much anticipated return to television last night (I haven’t seen it yet, and probably won’t till next weekend, so no spoilers). I, like many others, took the opportunity of its return to start re-watching some of the old episodes.

Woo boy.

There’s two levels on which the X-Files engaged with tech, as a means of moving the story forward (i.e. a tool), and as the main subject of the story (usually the antagonist). In the tool category you just write what’s around today, which in the era of the X-Files was huge cell-phones, dial-up modems, floppy disks, and data cassettes (remember those?). Remember 90’s websites?

I’m not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, but he did a pretty funny sketch about X-Files tech (see below):

When technology is the subject of the story, you run some risk of being dated. I actually think the upload story (Season 5’s: Kill Switch), holds up, since talk of the singularity is just starting to enter the public consciousness, whereas older AI episodes (Season 1’s: Ghost In The Machine) feel corny (even though malevolent AI plots are still a staple of sci-fi).

So how do we make technology stories feel less dated, while still having something to say about where we are with our relationship with technology today? Below are some brief thoughts, things I learned along the way while writing Surreality:

Technology doesn’t catch up everywhere: There are still people who use VCR’s. Police department funding is probably not at the level of what you see on NCIS and CSI (itself a now dated reference). You’ll get some grace for a little while, since not everyone is going to have an Occulus Rift, or even the latest tablet or smartphone, today.

Story matters first: Probably one of the reasons “Kill Switch” holds up (aside from being written by William Gibson), is the story. You could replace the orbiting laser platform with a drone strike, and the rest of the story would still hold up. The characters are interesting, the dialog is funny, and the style choices (the expert use of “Twilight Time”) make it unique and memorable. Sure we had virus programs written on CDs and lots of wires and huge cameras, but the core still works.

You can always revise: Surreality was written and rewritten over an interesting period. Social media went from something casual between a few college students, to pervasive throughout our lives, and provided on more platforms than you can imagine. You don’t have to know every variety of platform, but Twitter and Facebook have been around a while. Same rules apply here as they do when you’re building your author network, write what you know, don’t throw in something you think might be good if it serves no other purpose than name dropping.

Jump a little ahead: It’s probably not that hard to imagine some things that might be possible in a few years time. AI has been a staple of sci-fi since the 40s and 50s, and we’re still a long way from having a true strong AI, in the Data from Star Trek sense of the word. Attitudes about AI may seem dated, but the concept itself so far is evergreen.

Or a little behind: There are numerous indie games produced that capture the look and feel of classic games from the 90’s, down to the pixel art and MIDI music. A lot of tablets and phone games also go for this pixel idea. If a fictional game you’re writing about seems behind the times, it might be deliberate, a style and nostalgic choice. We may not ever be nostalgic for floppies, but we certainly are for records and old games.

The big take away here should always be, story comes first. Write a good story, and people will forgive that you talked about big desktops like they’re still a thing. They might even find it kind of campy, which is not a bad place to be. Certainly hasn’t been for the X-Files.

If you liked this, you may like my latest technological mystery: Surreality.

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