Tag Archives: Hacking

My Old Beater

I’m going to need a new car pretty soon. My 2006 Ford Taurus has passed the 150K mark, and survived two accidents, one that came pretty close to totaling her. But she’s been a steady commuter car for the last eight years even though now the engine roars like an approaching herd of elephants, and aesthetically the car is only a step or two above cars that are cobbled together out of different colored panels. Red Green once built a Hummer by Duct-Taping two K-Cars together. For me that might be a step up.

On the one hand I’m looking forward to a new car. We’re thinking an SUV. I like the power and maneuverability of a sedan, but an SUV will be more practical for our longterm family goals. And truthfully I’m a tall guy and it might be nice to drive not quite so close to the ground. I’m looking forward to the basic media plugins that mean I’ll finally be beyond the need to burn CD’s, and might be able to control radio stations from the steering wheel. GPS is also probably a must.

The only thing I’d wish for a new car (besides having better rear visibility than most new cars I’ve seen), is something that wasn’t so technologically complicated. As the recent Wired story shows us, we can put all sorts of fancy new features into cars, but they can also be hacked. I don’t really trust car companies to be good at software, and even with my old car there are many systems that can only be serviced at the dealer. I know it’s better for fuel efficiency and the environment to have emissions sensors, and it’s convenient to have sensors in the wheels telling you when the air pressure is too low, or when you might need an oil change. But the car is something we’ve been making for over a century, and part of me thinks that like handcrafted Amish wood furniture, the old ways are the best ways.

How about it blog-world? Got a car you’re driving that you love?


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Tip of the white hat, wag of the cheating finger

Ashley Madison dot com is one of those corners of the internet you never knew existed, but when you find out about it, it kind of makes a sick sort of sense. Madison, whose tag-line is “Life is short. Have an affair.” has a pretty simple mission statement, help more than 37 million married people have secret and fulfilling sexual dalliances. It was perhaps only a matter of time till they were the targets of hackers. A group calling themselves “The Impact Team” posted a large quantity of client information and promised to release all the private details, photos, credit card numbers, et cetera for every cheating cheater should Madison refuse to shut down.

Image Source: NPR

Image Source: NPR

This is the kind of story that feels viscerally satisfying even though deep down all parties are a little bit icky. Even those of us without a particularly strong moral compass like the idea of people getting what’s coming to them. It’s the same satisfaction we get when Donald Trump makes an ass of himself on television. It’s a natural impulse to like to see unlikable people, or people who have done something wrong, get their comeuppance.

Thing is, it’s a little hard to defend this hack. Sure there’s some chivalrous impulses in revealing philanderers and also highlighting the ways Madison might be cheating the cheaters with phony profile deletion fees. But posting personal information is just wrong. If the credit card transactions contain info that can be used to get card numbers, then you’ve hurt the victims as well as the cheating spouses. Posting naked pictures of the users of this site is just another form of revenge porn, and isn’t born out of anything but a prurient impulse.

A white hat hacker would have taken down the site, or posted a bunch of phony profiles, or some other prank to make the users look foolish. They wouldn’t hold the site hostage. No for profit website is going to shut itself down because of a threat, even if it should.

I don’t particularly see  this hack as a sign of something more sinister, of a moral policing of the internet. Such an effort would be as ineffective as it would be fool-hardy. For every site you take down or attack, two more spring up in its place, and a dozen more in the dark net and the deep web.

This is not to say that I want to let philanderers off the hook. I think that cheating on someone, especially your spouse, but even your girlfriend or fiancée is terrible. Here’s why, besides the obvious. It’s a sign there is something seriously wrong in your relationship and you’re too much of a coward to fix it. “But I still love her, I just need something more.” Bull. Deal with your problems like an adult, break up, seek counseling, whatever you need to do. Do that first, then go seek other relationships.

But hacks like this one aren’t going to solve the problem. Frankly, if we’ve got 37 million people wanting to cheat on their spouses (and those are just the people who have heard of this website) then we may have some problems to deal with as a society as well. Over emphasis of the sexual part of our relationships. Lack of understanding of how our sex drives wax and wane over the course of long relationships. Over emphasis on everything being novel and new.

So maybe take a moment to be satisfied that a bunch of cheating people have at least been made nervous, then hope these hackers move on to something a little more productive.

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Present Tech

One of the problems with setting a technology driven story in the present is that technology changes. Not only do the gadgets change, but we change as well. How then, does a writer keep a technology driven story current, given that writing a book can take years?

The more things change the more they stay the same:

I bought my first USB flash drive when I was a freshmen in college. It cost $40 and was 128 megabytes. Today, for only $30 I can buy a flash drive that is 512 times bigger. But despite improvements in utility and storage capacity these two drives are essentially the same device. The keyboard and mouse have been around since time immemorial, the CD since the early 80s. If you avoid specifics like cost, capacity or brands then your tech will stay fresher longer. (Who knows if the Kindle will even be a thing in ten years but I bet there’ll be eReaders of one stripe or another!)

Technology exists long before we own it:

I bought my first laptop after college. I still don’t own a smart phone or an iPad (though I have a cheap Android tablet). Chromecast looks neat , but I’m not planning on buying a compatible TV until mine breaks. Even in my work at [an engineering firm], smart phone adoption is neither essential nor universal. If your character is a hacker, then they need the latest tech, but if your story takes place on social media, the ways in which we interact with that world are many and diverse. I’m on Facebook on my ten year old desktop, or my new tablet. Lots of you use your phone. Most of us don’t have the money to buy the latest tech until after our old tech breaks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t adopt new technology trends.

Don’t be afraid to invent technology in the present:

The pace of technology is fast, and what seems like fiction today, is fact at lunchtime. If you can dream it up, chances are that technology could exist within ten years. And even if it isn’t commercial, there are always technology wizards and geniuses cooking up neat devices long before their time.

Write a period piece:

If you’re writing in a particular moment in time, don’t try to make it look like the present day. Add historical details if your story takes place in, for example, the waning years of the Bush era. Or how about the early 2000s, before social media exploded, or before the mid 90s when cell phones started to be more prevalent. Chances are your readers will still remember that moment and it will give them a chance to reflect on how life has changed in such a short time. A story about 1997 written in 2013 may be more durable than a story written in 1997 about the present day.

Remember all good stories are character driven:

Though your story may be technology driven in terms of plot, what drives story, what keeps our interest, is always characters. Science fiction may at times be able to get away with writing about some future technology that may one day have an impact on our lives without the need for fully realized characters, but your story won’t. Technology may set the stage, but it’s your characters that make a story worth reading.

How about you? Do you use technology in your stories about the present?

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Protecting Your Little Corner Of The Sky

It’s been a bad week for cloud computing. News of Matt Honan’s “epic hack” has been making the rounds, exposing the security flaws in Amazon and Apple that led to his iPhone being bricked, his iMac being wiped (resulting in the loss of priceless pictures), and his twitter account (the apparent target of this hack) sending out racial slurs.

I have never been a fan of “the cloud”.

To me “the cloud” is a marketing term for someone else is keeping track of my files. The cloud, in fact the internet itself, is a series of servers in data centers of all shapes and sizes. They’re sophisticated and expensive, but at the end of the day they’re really not that different from the tiny netbook on which I am writing this post.

Lots of blogs and news media sites are offering their tips for securing your digital life, and I thought I’d throw my hat into that ring.

7 Tips For Cloudy Days

1) Back your files up on multiple kinds of media: I’m a fan of three kinds of backups, flash drives, portable hard drives, and optical discs (DVD-Rs). Each have different operational lives and benefits. Optical discs may be only write once, but can last 10-20 years if stored properly. Even DVDs are a more than 15 year old proven technology. Flash drives have no moving parts and come in sizes that now rival hard drives. And portable hard drives can provide high capacity cheap fast space.

2) Leap frog your hard drives: A good hard drive will last at least four years (I own several that are pushing beyond 10). If you’re backing your files up on two hard drives (one of them can be in your computer), having a difference in age can significantly reduce the probability that they will fail at the same time.

3) Do it yourself: Be involved in how your files are managed. Almost any automatic process has flaws (I could [and may] write a whole blog post on my back and forth with Amazon Customer Service over my cloud music drive). Make sure you know when backups are happening, and initiate a backup process if you create something important you don’t want to lose. (Toucan and Free Commander are good programs for backing up between drives).

4) Everything you send Google can see: Okay that sounds a little paranoid but the reality is a file is much less likely to be seen on the internet if it only lives are your flash drives and laptops. Anything you send in an e-mail service, especially G-Mail, is archived and probably never deleted. You can encrypt these files but nothing beats them not getting out in the first place.

5) Burn only 4GB on DVDs: If you’re backing up a movie this doesn’t apply, but if your backup DVD is hundreds of MP3 files, try to keep the total file size at or below 4GB. This keeps a quarter to half inch ring around the edge that’s free of data (the edge is where most scratches and prints can happen). Remember that 4GB is probably 500-1000 songs and each song is only a very small part of that burn ring. Even a tiny scratch (if it’s deep enough) can wipe out a file. DVDs are fairly resilient, but still burn two copies. Don’t use Dual Layers or BluRays. They take longer to burn, they fail more often during the burn process, and they’re more expensive.

6) For documents nothing beats a flash drive: Flash drives have no moving parts and don’t require a power or USB cable. 8GB drives and 16GB drives are less than $10 in most places. Buy a couple, use Toucan to mirror them once and a while, and keep them in different places (one at home one in your bag). It’s okay to store files on your computer, but back them up on a flash. That way if your computer fails you don’t have to pull out your laptop’s hard drive to get files (I’ve done this). I’m emphasizing a couple of external storage methods because these cannot be wiped using the methods used in the “epic hack”.

7) For music buy MP3s (or convert): If you want to move your music around yourself on hard drives, it needs to be DRM (Digital Rights Management) free. MP3s are the easiest way to do this (Amazon sells these). They’re the most widely used music files by players and software, and they have a decent quality to size ratio. MP3s will move without playback troubles, unlike DRM iTunes files, and many WMAs. The basic tip is this, if you need software to manage your music (not just download), and the music won’t play independent of that software, it’s a bad sign for “owning” that music.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If any of you have helpful tips I’d love to see them in the comments.

PS: Print pictures and put them in photo albums. It’s a keepsake and makes certain pictures more special.


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