How does a hacker work? (pt. 2)

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson continues his discussion of hackers by looking at motivation.

Yesterday I looked at hackers who engage in their activities because they want to learn how things work. Today I want to look at another motivation for hacking – fun. A lot of hackers, particularly younger hackers, engage in their activities simply for the fun of it. There is an element of adventure, and the purpose is to break into a system, and to leave some sign that they have been there. Often, they have a hacker alias, and they work hard to enhance the reputation of that hacker alias.

These types of hackers are often called Script Kiddies because they do not write their own tools, and instead rely upon tools developed by others. They collect exploits that are published on the Internet via various usenet groups, or forums and they try to replicate the results achieved by others. They often pick up an advanced understanding of the ways that computers work, and especially the way that common security systems work, as they work at circumventing those common safeguards.

A few years ago, it was common to hack into a web site, and modify the default web page in some way that indicated the site had been compromised. These sorts of hacks are becoming more rare as web administrators learn how to apply security settings to prevent such attacks.

Common goals of Script Kiddies

Nowadays, the Script Kiddie is more interested in doing some of the following types of activities:

  • Obtaining free Internet access by cracking Wireless passwords
  • Obtaining free file storage by creating file shares on weakly secured systems
  • Setting up free file sharing for Movies, Music, Software, and Book files on weakly secured systems
  • Obtaining free copies of Movies, Music, Software, and E-Book files by cracking Copy-Protection put in place by the various Media companies
  • Obtaining free software by cracking the license verification protection placed on it by various software companies
  • Obtaining complete working copies of shareware software by obtaining working registration numbers that unlock the software
  • Obtaining cheat codes for various computer games (including console games such as XBOX ONE) to enable the player to gain access to advanced features of the game without having to work through all of the levels. Or to obtain massive amounts of experience points (or in game currency) to enable one to purchase upgrades for games.

These are obviously generalities, but if you are writing about a young hacker these would certainly be decent motivation and goals for your character. Pre-Teen hackers do not reprogram spy satellites, access NSA databases, or assume remote control of killer military drones. But they might very well have access to a file share that contains thousands of pirated movies (many of which have dozens of Oriental language subtitles).

Have a great day.

How does a hacker work? (pt. 1)

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about ways that hackers work. Today he talks about the desire to learn how things work.


Today I want to talk about how hackers work. But before that, I should perhaps talk about motivation.

NOTE: In this series of articles, I am providing a high level overview of hacker activities for the purpose of providing some insight for writers. I am not going to discuss details of specific techniques, nor is my intention to provide a “Value judgment”. If I say something is cool, I am not implying it is legal.

Learning and exploration

For some, it simply may be about learning. The hacker wants to see what they can do, how things work, and they may wish to explore. These types of hackers wish to push the boundaries of what is possible, and they delight in finding flaws.

Often they write their own tools, they seek to answer the question of whatif. What if I type 500 different numbers in this input box. How does the program handle the unexpected input. Does the program fail? If it does, is there a routine designed to handle the failure in a graceful manner, or does it fill the computer monitor with the contents of the computer memory.

The efforts of these types of hackers is not to be destructive, nor is it to “take down systems” but they are simply trying to see how things work. They view their activities with the detachment of scientific investigation. Of course, as with other scientific experiments, sometimes things go wrong, and this is when systems crash. Many times when a system crashes, it is because the original developer did not properly handle the exception, or did not anticipate the program being utilized in that manner. These types of hackers, view such circumstances as actually helping the original developer by pointing out flaws in their logic, and in the security of their program.

When the learning and exploration type of hacking becomes more formalized, these types of hackers often become “Security Researchers.” Most reputable software companies now have programs setup to solicit security researchers, and even to provide cash bounties for the discovery of new bugs and flaws in their systems. They provide assistance, answer questions and otherwise try to work for the betterment of the ecosystem. In return, when a flaw is discovered, reputable security researchers notify the software company, provide them with details of the exploit, and code to reproduce the problem. They also agree to wait for a certain amount of time, until the software company can produce a fix for the problem, before they publish the exploit (to the web via their blog, or as a paper at a conference).

Join me tomorrow when I will talk about another motivation for hackers.

I hope you have a great day.

Character: Don’t let your characters run amok

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about how to avoid confusing the reader

This morning I decided to do something I have been wanting to do for sometime … I made some muesli. I took a few liberties with the recipe, but I think it came out pretty good.

I may have gotten carried away with the  fresh fruit. But I was able to find some nice organic berries at the store last night. And Teresa came home with some apples from her last trip, so why not.

Now, one thing that is important when cooking is to allow each ingredient to have its own voice. If one ingredient, such as blueberries overpowers the dish, then all one ends up with is a bowl of blueberries, with a bit of stuff added in. It is the same way when writing.

Keeping characters under control

We have all watched movies, where some secondary character seems to steal the scene from a particular actor. It is great to have interesting characters, but if I end up rooting for a secondary character, then the situation has gotten out of hand. For example, when I go to watch a James Bond movie, I want to root for James Bond, and I want the Bond character to be the hero. If a secondary character seems to be more interesting, or the Bond du jour seems lifeless, flat and insipid, then I am going to leave the theatre unsatisfied (and with the price of movies and snacks approaching a c-note for a date night that is really unsatisfactory).

Five specific suggestions

What can I do to keep my characters under control? Well, here are some suggestions.

  1. Plan your character arc. Know in advance which characters are the main characters, and which are secondary. Ensure that the main character has specific strengths, weaknesses, and is interesting.
  2. Examine the plot. Do the characters simply exist to service the plot, or is their development part of the plot (or at least a plot thread).
  3. Examine the character. Is the character a complete person, or simply a cartoon caricature? If the latter, spend some time adding depth and complexity. Keep in mind that character complexity is not simply contradiction. Even Scooby Doo is always a coward, but he is willing to attempt some brave acts for a Scooby Snack.
  4. Do not dumb down a secondary character. If a secondary character appears to be unusually strong, consider adding a subplot that permits the character to shine – or better yet, consider adding a book to the series that features that character.
  5. Be flexible. Sometimes a secondary character really is more interesting than the main character. If the main character cannot be made more interesting, be prepared to fire that character, or at least provide a demotion. Obviously this will entail a bit of re-write, but in the end will produce a stronger work.

Give the reader a break: Plotting and chaos

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about plotting and chaos. He recommends helping the reader.

Last night I had a dream. If I do dream, normally by the time I wake up the dream is gone. This morning, however, I remembered the dream. It went something like the following:

I woke up, walked into my living room. My recliner was gone, as was my XBOX One. The room was littered with paper, boxes, and various fast food wrappers. The window was missing, and a large piece of cardboard was in its place. I went outside, and got into my car. I could barely see over the dashboard. I noticed the cardboard window had writing on it, and massive amounts of duck tape held it in place. I could not understand what the writing conveyed.

I began to back out of my parking space. The space went on, and on, and on. Finally, I began to head out of the parking lot, but cars were sitting in random fashion, and I felt like I was navigating a downhill slalom. Once on the highway, nothing moved. A tree crew was busy sawing the large oak trees into fireplace lengths. I stopped to adjust my seat upwards so I could better see out of the car. Another vehicle attempted to pass between my car and the tree truck. Suddenly sirens erupted everywhere. They kept getting louder, and louder—but they too seemed foreign, almost like sea gulls squawking over a fish. My alarm.

So the dream is not all that strange. In fact, I know exactly what it is saying. It shows me as being out of control, and in a world surrounded with chaos. Even the things closet to me – language, the comfort of my own chair, driver settings in my own car, all seem strange and out of place. Clearly the dream echo’s my own feeling of being overwhelmed by numerous projects, with impending deadlines. Yep, I just saved myself five hundred dollars worth of psychotherapy (a good thing since my health insurance does not cover such stuff). It is an uncomfortable feeling.

Don’t confuse your readers.

Confusion is not suspense. Readers like a good mystery story. They love reading thrillers. But confusion is not suspense. Chaos is not mystery. Not knowing what is going is not thrilling. When the plot degenerates into a morass of confusion, that is about the time the book goes sailing across the room, and the author goes on my blacklist.

It is a sad fact that there are more books published in a single year than I will ever be able to read in an entire lifetime.  So when I invest four or five hours in a book, and I am unable (or unwilling) to finish reading it, I feel really cheated. Never mind that I probably wasted twenty or thirty dollars on the book, that is four or five hours I will never have back again (money spent can be earned again, time spent is gone forever).

A writer makes several contracts with the reader. One of these contracts goes something like this:

Spend the next eight to ten hours with me, and I will tell you a story. The characters are interesting, the plot is engrossing, and the story will be memorable.

I hope you have a great day today.

The three key factors to successful description

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about three key factors when using description.

It was a dark and stormy night, when I was awakened from a comatose sleep with a phone ring tone so sharp it could slice coconuts. I snarled like a lion at the chirping device, and muttered something that had the caller really been listening might have upset them had they cared anything about the reputation of their mother. Which at this graveyard silent hour, I was having serious doubts.

Ok, enough of that. Description is important  but not as an end. Description should serve the plot, the characterization, the setting but not supplant these things.

1. Remember that less is more. If I have a monster, and I go into great detail describing that monster, I may or not create a scary monster. Think back to the  1920’s and 30’s style monster movies. They were not very scary at all because the monster just looked hokey. Special effects were not all that great, and directors had not yet mastered the less is more. In fact, many modern movies fail in this regard as well. They are special effect driven, and after a while 30 minutes of continuous explosions, fireballs, and smoke just get tiresome. Instead, ratchet up the tension by holding back.

2. Do I really care if the character has blonde hair, blue eyes, and  … well whatever? No. In fact, I might not think that blonde hair, blue eyes, and whatever are all that attractive. In a writers group I was in, a beginning writer described all of his female characters as blondes. When asked about this, the writer did not even know he had done it. His answer, “I just like blondes.” Personally, I tend to skip over long descriptions of characters. In general, I don’t care what they look like. If a particular character is supposed to be attractive in the story, then why not consider showing how other characters react. Are they deferential, condescending, or whatever?

NOTE: It is always a good idea to show, not tell. This goes for description as well as action.

A meal arrives at the dinner table. The writer can go on, and on, and on about the steak, potato, lobster, gravy, dinner rolls, salad and so on and so forth. And you know what? Maybe the writer just lost half of the readers. Why? Because maybe they are vegan, or have other food restrictions. Instead, show don’t tell. One character rubs his hands together, another places her face over the plate, and uses her hands to waft the aroma of the food while she inhales deeply. Another character, licks his mouth, then takes his napkin and wipes his face because he realized he was beginning to drool. In this instance, by showing three different characters reaction to the food, I not only tell something about the meal (it is obviously great) but I also provides insights into the type of characters – one is more of a coinsure, one is rather crude, and one is a rather foolish chow-hound. Now, the meal may consist of meat and potatoes, or it might be gourmet Cuisine … who knows. Indeed who cares what the characters ate – it will become important later on in the story.

3. Remember that readers today want the story to move along. I recently read Ivanhoe, and while it is an awesome story, with a great plot, excellent action and so on, I was shocked at how long it took me to read. I mean, the book was just over 500 pages, and I really thought I could knock it out one rainy Saturday … but such was not the case. It ended up taking me three days to read. This is because the writing was densely packed with description. One of the great things about Sir Walter Scott, is that he took great pains to get details correct. He put a lot of these details into his novels, AND if that were not enough, he even added footnotes for the details he was not quite able to fit in. As much as I loved the story, I am afraid that poor old Scott would be quite unable to find a publisher now days. Readers do not mind reading longer books (especially from their favorite established writers) but the writing must flow naturally, and the descriptions must serve the story. I am convinced that one reason Scott put so much detail in his writing is that he did not have a Facebook account, a Twitter account and a cell phone. Therefore, it really did take him a thousand words to describe what nowadays we get in a single picture. 

I hope you have a tremendous day.

Join me tomorrow when I will talk a bit more about description.

Interview your characters?

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about interviewing characters as part of the development process

This morning I decided to make some Orange Cream tea from leaves I bought when I was in Hamburg. It is a wonderful tea, and it goes well with really dark chocolate. I added a bit of Orange Peel, and a cinnamon stick to the tea and it came out nice.

Interviewing the character

A common suggestion I hear in writers groups, at conferences, and even in books and blogs is to interview the character. Some even go so far as to create an interview sheet, that the writer is supposed to fill out.

The suggestion is to create an interview sheet for each character, especially for main characters. Include likes, dislikes, favorite foods, music, activities. Decide on style of clothes, type of hair cut, and so on and so on and so on. Of course, the interviews are supposed to be for the author, and will not end up in the book. But this is actually a pretty dangerous assumption because after all of the work, the writer really begins to think all of this stuff is important. This leads to the infamous beginner mistake called the info dump. It goes something like this:

In walked Sam. Sam was a recent graduate of Ohio State University where he was a member of the campus newspaper. He wrote a weekly review of chain restaurants that were within walking distance of the downtown campus. He was well known, therefore, for having a rather well developed culinary pallet, especially when thinking about low priced chain restaurants. There was just one thing, and that was that Sam really does not like green eggs, nor does he like green ham. This tended to cause quite a stir around St. Patrick’s day. In fact, Sam once stated to a close friend that he would not eat green eggs or green ham in a box, nor with a fox. He also confided to his wife that he would not eat either green eggs or green ham in a tree. But he had not ruled out eating green eggs and green ham with a Kangaroo. Yes, there was definitely a maybe when it comes to eating with Kangaroo, in in his household, it caused much ado.

Ok, so maybe this is not an improvement over a great children’s classic. In fact, there is much to distracting information here. The fact that Sam worked on a campus newspaper, or that it was Ohio State, or his reputation for eating at low priced chain restaurants, St. Patrick’s day. All this is unimportant. But because I took the time to create the back story, I want to use all of that work. Purists will say, but it helps with motivation, it helps the writer to understand the character and therefore to create believable characters.

Create, Document, on the fly

Maybe. Maybe not. What I do, is when I add in a specific detail, I document the detail in my character sketch. I only add details when I need them. To me, this keeps from having artificial characters. Because, if I sit down and create a back story, likes and dislikes and all of that, then the characters do not seem to believable. On the other hand, if I think how would the character react in a specific situation, then now I have context, and as a result a stronger character. Plus, because I have no back raft of details, I have no desire to do an info dump on the poor unsuspecting reader.

Think about it. Maybe it will work for you. Maybe not.

Join me tomorrow when I will talk about description.

I hope you have an great day.

Writing is one thing … editing is another

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about separating writing and editing.

Last month held the #NaNoWriMo event (The National Novel Writing Month). The idea is to write a 50,000 rough draft of a novel in a month, that translates to around 1,600 or so words a day. To me that is not all that big of a deal. I routinely write more than that in a regular day. I also write more than that at night. Especially when the moon is out, and the sky is clear. I enjoying heading out on the porch and writing.

The key, for me anyway, is to separate writing from editing. If I type a sentence, and pause to edit it, then I do two things:

1. I ruin my momentum

2. I waste time editing something that I might have deleted in the first place.

It really is that simple. Writing and editing are two different processes. When I am writing, I get into a flow. I begin to compose situations, descriptions, I think of details that I want to include, and I begin to eliminate things that take away from all of that. It really does not matter if I am writing on a technical book project, or if I am working on my mystery novel … I just sort of visualize a conversation that begins to take place, I explain things to an imaginary audience. In fiction, I am telling a story to a hypothetical reader.

In both cases, I know where the story goes. With a non-fiction work, I plan my book projects out extremely carefully. The outline goes down several layers – nearly to the point of lead in sentences for each section in a chapter. In my fiction writing, the outline covers the main idea, the major flow, but not all of the details. I may indicate where I think plot twists occur, but once I have the plan, I do not go back to it too often.

For a day of writing to be productive, I must know where I will pick up in the morning. I deliberately, leave off at a point where I know where things go. In this way, I am sort of on autopilot for the first point. Hopefully, like priming a pump, the words begin to flow before the prime gives out. Hemingway said essentially the same thing, he said that he never writes himself out because otherwise it takes too long to get back into the flow of things the next day.

This is actually one of the good things of the #NaNoWriMo it helps one to set goals, and to see how steadily meeting goals, helps one to achieve the desired results.

Remember, a writer writes. A writer also edits, but don’t do both activities at the same time.