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A Crushing Blow for the Protagonist (Me)

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Approximately two weeks ago, I, along with my classmates, turned in the first 25,000 words of our novels. Thursday, we received grades and critiques. Convinced I had written an almost perfect blend of action, romance, and comedy, I excitedly began to read my professor’s comments. I did find it odd that her comments consisted of two typed pages stapled together — how could it take someone two pages to say, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever read!”

One of the first comments that jumped out at me read, “You might consider deleting chapter two.” Continue reading A Crushing Blow for the Protagonist (Me)

FBI vs. Apple vs. You

Shortly before entering the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California and opening fire, killing 14 people and injuring another 20, the shooters — Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik — discarded their cell phones laptop’s hard drive. While the hard drive has not been located, the cell phones turned up in a dumpster near the terrorists’ rented home.

Four hours after the attack, Farook and Malik were killed in a gun battle with FBI agents. Unfortunately, they were shot before anybody got a chance to ask Farook what the four-digit lock code on his iPhone was. Oops.

An iPhone, when configured to do so, will back itself up to Apple’s iCloud when connected to an approved WiFi hotspot. Farook’s iPhone was configured to do this, but hadn’t been backed up in six weeks. To access the data on the phone, all the FBI needed to do was take the phone to a pre-approved WiFI network (say, Farook’s house or work) and turn the phone on. The phone would have backed itself up to iCloud, and the FBI would have been able to file a subpoena to obtain the (unencrypted) data from Apple.

But that’s not what they did. Instead, an FBI agent attempted to reset the phone’s security PIN via iCloud. This requires the phone to be unlocked to sync up. In other words, a random FBI agent who knew nothing about how iCloud works (he could have asked any 13 year old) locked the FBI out of the phone with this one single (dumb) action.

The FBI’s backup plan was to have Apple unlock the terrorist’s phone. First, they politely asked if Apple would break into the phone for them. Apple politely declined. Then, the FBI took Apple to court. When Apple still refused to cooperate, the Department of Justice also took the company to court, citing the All Writs Act (part of the Judiciary Act of 1789). Apple continued to drag their feet on the request.

And, for clarification, what the FBI was asking Apple to do was create a custom version of iOS with a backdoor in it that would allow them to bypass the security code. Because, nothing bad could possibly come from developing that. The government promised that it would only be used one time in a controlled environment, because of course they would promise that.

This story has freedom of speech, citizens’ rights, the right to encryption (and privacy from the government), the FBI vs. Apple, terrorists, murder… all they had to do was throw in a Star Wars reference and a video game and it would have been perfect!

From day one, I told my wife “the FBI does not need Apple to get into that phone. They will get in, regardless. This is a PR stunt.” My wife thinks I’m crazy (and not just because of this theory.) Any time the FBI makes a public release, it’s for a reason. The stuff they don’t want you to know about, you don’t know about. The stuff they do want you to know about makes the news.

Think of it this way: if Apple were to cave, it’s a lose/lose. Apple loses because it makes them look like they are catering to the government at the expense of their customers’ privacy. And the FBI loses twice: first, they look weak by not being able to break into a single phone, and second, they look like bullies. But if Apple were to stand up to the FBI and refuse to unlock the phone and the FBI were eventually able to unlock it on their own, that would be a win/win! Apple becomes the valiant defender of encryption and customer rights, while the FBI ends up looking like uber-hackers!

And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. On Monday, the FBI withdrew their case against Apple and said “thanks, bro, but we got in anyway.”

Above is a video of the XPIN CLIP in action attacking an iPhone running iOS 7x. What the device on the left is doing is sequentially sending passcodes to the phone. If you want to jump to the 3:30 mark you’ll see it send 1230, 1231, 1232, and 1233 before unlocking the phone with the correct code, 1234. Apple fixed this hole in iOS 8. A few weeks later, someone released a new device that worked against iPhones running iOS 8. Apple fixed that hole in iOS 9. It wouldn’t take a complete leap of faith to say that there’s a new device out there that works on the latest iPhone operating system.

But the terrorist’s phone had the security feature enabled that would wipe his phone after 10 incorrect guesses. Welp…

This is the IP Box unlocking an iPhone running iOS 8. The IP Box utilized an exploit that prevented the iPhone from recognizing incorrect guesses by pressing two buttons at the same time. Rumor has it that the newer versions of this box (available for around $200) can cut the power to the phone immediately after each attempt to prevent the phone from logging the incorrect guesses. It takes longer, extending the maximum amount of time from hours to days (but not weeks), but if you’re just dealing with one phone, that’s not too bad.

For now, this story is over (although you can bet Apple already has people trying to figure out how the FBI got into iOS 9, and will be patching that hole in the inevitably soon-to-be released update). Apple politely asked the FBI how they did it; the FBI politely refused to offer up that information. In the end, Apple won by not backing down, and the FBI won by gaining access to the terrorists’ selfies. The terrorists lost, but they were already dead so having their phone compromised is really just a parting gift.

The rest of us are stuck in the middle, hoping that the private information on our phones, computers, and stored in the cloud remains private.

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Failure after Failure

Failure in real life can be bad. Sure, there are sayings like “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!” and “People who don’t fail never tried,” but the only thing losing ever taught me was that I didn’t like losing much.

Novels are different though, and one thing I’ve learned this semester is that your protagonist should repeatedly fail — not in a “bungling buffoon” manner, but in a way that keeps them moving forward. For example… Continue reading Failure after Failure

Star Wednesday: Darth Vader Bend-Ems

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From the day Star Wars debuted in 1977 through the mid-1980s, it seemed like the Star Wars floodgates would never stop. It all started with only a few action figures, but by the time Return of the Jedi hit theaters in 1983, action figures and playsets were just one of hundreds of things Star Wars fans could purchase. By the age of ten I had Star Wars pillows, sheets, and curtains for my room, Star Wars pencils, markers, and folders for school, and all sorts of other galactic items. Where the theatrical movies stopped, the Saturday morning cartoon shows and made for television specials began. It seemed like it would never end!

And then it ended.

Other than the occasional computer or video game, not a lot of Star Wars items were released in the second half of the 80s, and save for a few bits and pieces here and there, things didn’t pick back up until the Power of the Force figure line relaunched in 1995. What were fans to do?

Well, in some cases, we bought Bend-Ems.

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Photo courtesy of StarWars.com

Bend-Ems were a line of bendable, rubber Star Wars figures. They looked dumb when they were released, and their looks haven’t improved over time. Collectors bought them for the same reason (and with the enthusiasm) that people lost or stranded in the wilderness occasionally resort to drinking their own urine. Saying that you liked the Bend-Ems line of figures is akin to saying Jar Jar Binks is your favorite Star Wars character. It’s like saying you prefer the lines on an ’87 Yugo to a ’57 Chevy, or that your favorite movie of all time is the intermission cartoon they used to show at drive-in theaters.

I didn’t buy all (there were only around 20) of the available figures in the Bend-Ems line, but I bought a few of them, and Darth Vader was one of those. A far cry from the menacing Dark Lord of the Sith we had grown to know and love, the Bend-Ems version of Darth Vader seems proud of his opposable thumbs and hint of a goofy grin.

I started working for the FAA in 1995, and on one of my first work trips, I had a terrible flight — one so bad that it kept me from getting back on an airplane for almost a decade. When I started flying again, I wanted to take something with me. Something I could put in my pocket and focus on. A good luck charm, if you will. That item became this Bend-Em Darth Vader.

This Darth Vader figure, as silly as he looks, as been on every single flight I’ve taken (and most road trips, too) since 1995. On flights, if my clothing allows, he usually rides in my front pocket. The rest of the time he stays tucked away in my laptop bag. I may not be able to see him at all times, but he’s there. Last year after visiting Hawaii I was able to claim that I had been in all 50 states, and I dare say Vader has been to all of them, too.

Darth Bendy doesn’t stand alongside my other figures on their display shelf. Instead he stands alone, right next to the door of my computer room. There are always things in that room that get packed up when I head out for a trip, and when I walk out that room on my way downstairs, the last thing I grab is him. I haven’t been in a plane crash yet since I started carrying him with me so it looks like he’s working.

Rubik’s Madness

Erno Rubik invented his “magic cube” in 1974. It appeared on toy shelves in his native country as the “Hungarian Magic Cube” in 1977, and arrived in America three years later in 1980. Rubik’s Cubes flew off shelves in record numbers. It was named 1980’s “Toy of the Year,” and puzzle cubes (both Rubik’s brand and knock-offs) continue to sell today. To date, more than 350 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold, making it both the best selling puzzle and best selling toy of all time.

Most of us associate Rubik’s Cubes with the 1980s. Check out the cover of the next nostalgic book about the 80s you see and I’ll bet you see one of those cubes on the front cover. When I was in elementary school, Rubik’s Cubes were everywhere. People brought them to school and played with them during recess and on the school bus. I even remember finding one down in the bottom of my Christmas stocking one year. Later we had the Rubik’s Snake, those pyramid puzzles, and that weird Rubik’s Link the Rings thing (Sears has one for $131.98, if you’re interested), but it was the cube that stood the test of time. All of my friends tried solving them. A few of my friends learned the patterns and algorithms from books, while the rest of us perfect the art of disassembling and reassembling them (or worse, swapping the stickers around).

According to Wikipedia, the first world championship (organized by the Guinness Book of World Records) took place in Munich on March 13, 1981. The winner of the competition was Jury Froeschi, who was able to solve the cube in 38 seconds.

While 38 seconds seems pretty fast for someone like me (who hasn’t solved a cube in 30+ years and counting), my son Mason tells me it’s a pretty slow time. Mason can consistently solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 30 seconds. His best time, I think, is around 22 seconds. The current world’s record is 4.9 seconds. The top 10 solving times range from 4.9 seconds to 5.81 seconds, each of which occurred since 2013.

Yes, the cube has returned. Mason and several of his classmates have memorized solutions to the cube (now posted freely on YouTube) and spend their free time “cubing,” and more specifically, “speedcubing.” At officially sanctioned Rubik’s Cube events (yes, really), competitors of all ages compete to score the best average time in one of several events. For those who don’t feel particularly challenged by the cube, there are categories for solving the cube with one’s feet, solving it with one hand, and solving it while blindfolded.

This past Saturday, Mason and his friend Brenden talked Susan into taking them to Dallas for an officially sanctioned (yes, really) World Cube Association event. I’m not sure if there were age groups or how the competition worked, but at the end of the day both Mason and Brenden had averages in the low 20s, which placed them in the middle of the field of 120-ish competitors. The winner of the 3x3x3 cube solving competition walked away with a winning time of 7.84 and an average of 9.01, so the boys have their work cut out for them.

Until then, Mason has other irons in the fire. He recently launched MasonCubes.com, a website where he reviews different brands of Rubik’s Cubes and shows how they work. (There are apparently many different models of varying quality.) He’s also set up an Amazon Affiliate account and has earned $6 to date on people buying cubes through his website. It beats flipping burgers.

While I don’t know that speedcubing is a skill that will be valuable to him later in life, I hope the website, social media accounts, and advertising (he wore an official MasonCubes.com t-shirt to the event) is.

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DJ Mix Pro

To provide the music for my niece’s wedding, I used a program called DJ Mix Pro. It’s not a well known program, but it’s really good at what it does (and really affordable), so I thought I would mention it.

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Talented disc jockeys are able to take two songs, match their speed (measured in Beats Per Minute, or BPM), and seamlessly fade from one song to the next. It is an art that requires skill, talent, and a good ear.

DJ Mix Pro simulates this skill and performs it automatically by using its own patented “Beatlocking Technology.” After adding your mp3 collection to DJ Mix Pro’s library, the software automatically determines each song’s BPM. Based on that information, you can group songs with similar BPM together, and the software does the rest.

By default, DJ Mix Pro loads the next track when the current track has 20 seconds left. When the current track has 15 seconds left, the second track will begin to play and the software will automatically adjust the speed of the second track to match the first one. It will then cross fade the two songs, lowering the volume of the ending song while raising the volume of the second one. The end result is a continual stream of music with no dead air between tracks — perfect for a wedding reception!

Once you add your songs to your playlist, you can sort them by dragging them up and down in the playlist. For my niece’s wedding, I spent 10 minutes getting the songs into the order I wanted, and then saved the playlist. When it was time for the party I simply double-clicked on the playlist, and it started playing. I didn’t have to touch a thing.

One thing I like is you can mess with options, song orders, and beatlock settings for hours, or you can literally drop and drag a bunch of mp3s into the program, click “shuffle,” press “play” and walk away. You can literally be up and running with crossfading songs and beatlocking in 30 seconds.

The free/demo version of the software has a few limitations. It only performs beatlocking on twenty songs, and you cannot export your final mixes to .WAV. Fortunately, the registered version is only $20, and your license key will be emailed to you immediately upon PayPal purchase.

The DJ Mix Pro website looks like it was designed in 1995 using Notepad. The website suggests you save your license key file “to floppy” and suggests that users have at least 32 Mb of RAM. Despite apparently being frozen in time, the software does a good job at what it does. Playing mp3s on your computer is never a substitute for a real life DJ, but if you’re wanting to play some music for a party and “set it and forget it,” DJ Mix Pro will do the job.

Link: http://djmixpro.com

The Chase

I spent an hour or two yesterday writing a motorcycle chase. Our hero — Skip — has just been lured into a seedy part of town in hopes of hiring a coyote (or “Coyotaje”) to help sneak him and his cohort Monica back across the border into the United States. The meeting was a setup. Trapped between the drug runners (who want to kill him) and the Coyotajes (who want to kill him), Skip hops on one of the coyote’s motorcycles, hotwires it, and makes a break for it.

When I’m writing an action scene, the action unfolds in my imagination in real time. It’s almost like watching a movie, and trying to type everything as it happens. The motorcycles zoom one way. Skip does a wheelie. One motorcycle spins out on the dirt and crashes. Another jumps a ditch and takes a shortcut. Look out, Skip!

Continue reading The Chase

Good Wedding and Good Cake

Twelve hours before my niece’s wedding was scheduled to begin, decorations still needed hanging, my laptop (the sole source of the evening’s music) started acting up, and the wedding cake had just fallen off the table, onto the floor.

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Jessica, my oldest niece, was born in 1989. She was four when Susan and I moved in together, and had just turned six when she served as a flower girl (along with her sister) at our wedding in 1995.

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Twenty-one years later, it was Jessica’s turn to stand at the altar, with my daughter Morgan as one of the bridesmaids and Jessica’s nieces throwing out the flower pedals behind her.

Time indeed flies.

Weddings in movies and on television are a glorious thing. My wife loves the television show Say Yes to the Dress, where brides-to-be try on multiple dresses and are forced to choose between the $10,000 one and the $15,000 ones. (On some episodes, they buy both.) My tree’s not on that side of the tracks — I ain’t no fortunate one, no. My wedding, and most of the family weddings I’ve attended, consisted of people paying for what they had to, and relying on family members to pitch in where they could and help out with the rest. That’s how our wedding was, and that’s how Jessica’s wedding was. People brought food. People made centerpieces. People hung decorations. People arranged and rearranged tables and chairs. People helped clean up afterwards. People celebrated.

Twenty-one years later, Susan can still tell you everything that didn’t go quite right at our wedding. I don’t remember anything going wrong, and nobody else who was there does either. Nobody on the dance floor last night saw me scrambling on my laptop and filling song requests and changes by pulling them down off the internet while the live music was playing. Nobody noticed any of the little details. All they noticed was that two kids (“kids”) got married and had a great wedding and a great reception.

So, about that cake.

A few tears were shed and a few words were said and after that, my sister-in-law got to work making another one. An entirely new cake was made and decorated in just a few hours. People who saw the second cake had no idea that it was the second cake. The cake was wonderful.

So was the wedding. Congratulations to Kyle and Jessica. I know you don’t feel old yet, but wait until you’re helping move tables at Morgan’s wedding. ;)

Write What You Know?

Last night my family and I spent the night in a cabin in the woods. I wrote a little bit about the cabin on my website. This entry isn’t about the cabin. Not exactly, anyway. It’s about one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice: “Write what you know.”

This sage piece of writing advice has been attributed to Mark Twain, Ernest Hemmingway, and several other classic authors. Taken at face value, it’s not very helpful. I suspect Tolkien never met a Hobbit, nor has Stephen King ever encountered a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury. If authors literally only wrote about things they knew about, there would be very few novels featuring space travel and supernatural encounters.

The true intent behind the advice is that authors should write about emotions they know. Then again, I think that’s what it means. If you Google what does ‘write what you know’ really mean? you’ll get 369,000 results. Take your pick.

One of the things “Write what you mean” means to me is that the people, places, and things in your stories should seem real. Whether you’re writing about a can opener or a time machine, your reader should believe that in the universe your story takes place in, that items exists. Obviously an author has to put a lot more work into describing a time machine to his readers than a can opener, but both are equally important when selling the reality an author builds to his or her readers.

For the past two days I spent a lot of time investigating our cabin, just looking at things. I looked at the layout of the cabin, its decor, and the decorations. At some point, I’m sure I’ll need a cabin in one of my stories. This one might just fit the bill.

Roughing It in the Woods

The family and I spent the night as close to camping as I like to get — inside a two bedroom, 1,000 square foot cabin.

The outside of the cabin is chocolate brown and looks like logs. Everything inside — the floors, walls, ceiling, shelves, cupboards, and kitchen table — are made of pine. The roof, front door, and trim are all forest green.

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From inside the cabin you can’t see any other cabins. There are trees to the south, and a huge deck out the backdoor that overlooks a fire pit and a murky swamp pond out past that. Once you venture out onto the deck, the illusion is ruined. From there, you can see another cabin to the south, and two more to the north. The trees block some of the view, but the sound of car doors and dogs barking and the occasional child screaming are unmistakable. We’re all out here in the woods, avoiding other people. Together.

The thing I like the most about the cabin is how fake it is. It’s almost like Hollywood’s idea of a cabin. It doesn’t take long to spot the vents in the ceiling that connect to the central heat and air, the smoke detectors, and the modern ceiling fans, painted to look older than they really are. A sheet of fake rock has been attached to the front of the bar; the same stuff has been attached to the front of the fireplace as well. Next to the fireplace is a flat screen television that is connected to a DVD player and a Direct TV box, both mostly hidden from view.

Don’t get me wrong — were we staying in a cabin without air conditioning and modern beds, the tone of this entry would be very different.

My favorite parts of the cabin are its decorations. There are built in shelves in every room, and each one displays something that means nothing. The shelves in the living room display a collection of wicker baskets. The ones in the dining room are home to a bowl, another basket, and a porcelain duck. The room’s main focal point, a large, prominent shelf located right behind a chandelier made from deer antlers, holds two metal candle holders with stars cut out of them and a large metal pig. Susan tells me everything on display in the cabin came from garage sales.

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Susan and I spent the morning in the outdoor hot tub. Like a movie set, the trees closest to the cabin look pretty detailed, but the ones off in the distance look less authentic. Save for one lone wasp on a search for water there are no bugs. A few cobwebs stretch from the gutter to the handrail, and I wonder if they are even real.

As we climb out of the hot tub and prepare to begin our day, a squirrel scampers by. I swear I saw a string pulling it…