Rejection Teaches You More Than Acceptance

I was informed today that Mesh was removed from one of the competitions I entered the manuscript into. It’s disappointing, of course, but the silver lining is that I got some insightful feedback from the readers. It’s certainly true that rejection can teach you more than acceptance ever could. Those notes give me fresh motivation to complete this version of the draft and re-double my efforts to get Mesh into the hands of readers.

So what did they think? Here’s the highlights from their feedback:

“Mesh benefits first and foremost from a very marketable setup that feels as if it could cater to a large and very devoted fan base for young adult fiction … That being said, the story does a nice job with plot, particularly when it comes to the activeness of Roman as a protagonist in his efforts to escape from his home. … Additionally, the pages find plenty of fun and original details to implement throughout the narrative, especially with aspects such as the Mesh that links the various students and the exoskeleton that allows Roman to walk.”

I always have a moment when someone professional gives me frank, objective feedback. There’s that dreaded moment, the one where you’re waiting for them to say “Sorry, this has to start all over again.” I’m happy to say that Coverfly didn’t say that to me. In the world of writing, that’s a huge hurdle to cross and I want to make sure I celebrate that victory with you.

Now of course, they had some suggestions on how to improve the story, and I’ll be including them in this upcoming draft. The main thing that I take from this is that Mesh is still moving forward, and people see big things ahead. I’ll take five minutes for a happy dance, and then it’s back to work.

AuthorFit

Picture of what an elliptical machine may look like

So one thing I haven’t talked about up until now is how I stay healthy. I know that asking an author for fitness tips is like asking a squirrel to do brain surgery, but it’s still important. We’re all mammals and being creative is no excuse to be fat. So that said, how does a socially-anxious introvert get fit? Let’s take a moment to talk about it.

To begin with, all my exercise tips are based on what I have found works for me. Got it? No ‘one simple trick,’ no ‘lose 30 lbs in 30 days’ programs. I’ve tried them all, and they all suck. Want to know what does work for me? It’s easy:

I stop looking at fitness as a problem to be solved, and instead look at it as something to be curious about. Look at it look a system to be hacked. Take all the judgement out of the equation, and just look at physical fitness and health by themselves. What do I want? What have I tried? What have I learned? What works? What doesn’t? Continue reading

Murder Your Darlings

Quick update – I’m pleased to say that she’s okay. The mild fever passed. No major symptoms. Thank you to everyone who checked in. I don’t want to talk about this more, it’s too painful. Let’s move on to the business of storytelling.

This week, Mesh received frank, direct feedback that targeted the entire structure of the story: Should Roman be a victim of a spinal cord injury (SCI)? The ensuing discussion and resolution to the problem highlights one of the most important and yet painful rules of storytelling: Murder your darlings.

It’s an important issue. When I first considered the idea of making Roman disabled, it received some resistance. Why does he have to be in a wheelchair? I thought a lot about this question – essentially Roman’s story is the story of anyone who got screwed over by life before they got started. I was that kid, in my own way, but I wanted to discuss it from a different view point. I’m also inspired by a teen with spinal bifida but I didn’t want to appropriate his story.

As a means to resolve all potential problems, I settled on a spinal cord injury as the reason why the protagonist of Mesh would eventually find himself with a set of cybernetic legs. It didn’t occur to me that the solution to this problem was a problem unto itself.

And thus, Jackson embarked on a voyage of self-discovery and awareness, as well I should. I’m not a member of that community, and I don’t live their lives or feel their feelings. The idea of a person with SCI being ‘fixed’ is boring to them. It doesn’t represent their experience. To oversimplify the issues of SCI would come across as disrespectful, and aggravating.

So in the end, the choice was painful but clear. I’m embarrassed to admit, being a person with disability, that I was so ignorant of this important issue. However, now that I knew the truth there was no question. I needed to change this central aspect of the story out of respect for those who live with SCI every day. I needed to abandon the idea that Roman was a victim of a spinal cord injury. So that’s what I mean when I say ‘murder your darling.’ I thought I knew what I was doing, using that story element. It turns out that I didn’t. Learning that about yourself is always painful.

The idea behind this rule is simple: sometimes you have to get out of your own way. As a story evolves into its final form, you’ll always find things that need to come out. It might be something simple like a name, or something big like an entire subplot. No matter what it is, when you find that an initial element no longer works, it has to be changed or retired.

That’s when a writer’s ego leaps into the fight. How dare you, it screams. This has to be a part of the story. You can’t take this out! The rule is really about being prepared to kill those darlings, those story elements you held so dear, in pursuit of the final goal: the real story you were meant to tell. Or maybe it’s about killing your darling ego, when its clear it doesn’t know what is best for the story.

 

When COVID Comes Home

This is a brief post about someone who might have COVID tonight. The SHE in my ME story. The one who made a house into a home, the one who got away. The one we don’t talk about. The one I left behind when I started all over again. Her.

Tonight she texted me heartbreaking news: The doctor’s office where she worked/works at, the owner tested positive for COVID. She doesn’t have any major symptoms, but she’s running a half-degree warm. She’s quarantining herself, and my anxiety left shoots through the roof. For the next 24 hours, I’ll be terrified of every text, and I’ll be terrified of every silence. We’re both freaking out about what the next 24 hours might mean.

Neither of us are dumb enough to think that a virus will bring us back together. We’re better off as friends, and we both know that. But she doesn’t have anyone else to call, and there’s no one else I’d rather hear from. And now maybe she’s sick. Maybe she’s in trouble. That’s one more lifeline that might fray in the fire of a global pandemic.

I didn’t want to talk about COVID before. It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t right for me to talk about it. But now Coronavirus has come home, and I can’t think about anything else.

Writing is the key. Just have to find the lock.

Sci-Fi in the Apocalypse

Oregon doesn’t have a shelter-in-place order, but I’m planning ahead. The Governor keeps saying there’s no order but we all know different. We’re going to be stuck inside like the rest of you in a matter of days. As I said before, scifi needs to graduate from dystopian stories, and if it wasn’t clear before we should all know it now.

So what kind of scifi should we be reading/writing in the apocalypse? My feeling is pretty simple – we can do what we always did. For example, in times of leisure we focused on what the world would turn into if certain factors did not improve. Now that they are upon us, we can continue.

For example, we can use our imaginations to focus on what happens when the world is a better place. There are genres like this already – solarpunk for example. There’s no reason we can’t turn our attention to what the world will look like when it is free of disease, crime, and violence.

Just like Gene Roddenberry, we can imagine a happy future for ourselves and march toward it. There’s no reason we can’t start doing this right now!

Warm wishes, and happy dreams. And wash your dang hands.

#StuckInsideStory – Free Stories While You #QuarentineLife

Quick joke – today, #QuarentineLife is trending on Twitter. Not #Quarantinelife, #QuarentineLife. Let that sink in. I have good news, though. Through Saturday, I’m giving away free e-copies of ‘The Battle of Victoria Crater,’ a gritty scifi western about greedy landowners, desperate settlers and a lone gunman … on Mars.

Click Here to Read

Hope you enjoy it, if anything it will help you as you get through your #QuarentineLife, or your #QuarantineLife. Whatever floats your boat.

 

 

And Now … Some Cartoon Music

All this COVID stuff got you down? Here’s something we can all appreciate – Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Liszt. You know this piece even if you don’t know it’s name – it’s the basis for many, MANY musical numbers for Bugs Bunny, Daffy, Tom and Jerry cartoons. A million hours spent watching cartoons came flooding back while listening to this – it’s lovely to just hear the music by itself.

No matter what’s happening outside, don’t let it take you away from you. There’s beauty in this world, and it’s worth enjoying.

Cyberpunk Justice – Even If You Lose, You Win

There’s an interesting, under-discussed concept within computer hacking, and this article from a couple of weeks ago proves that it’s a thing: according to News365.co.za, Tatenda Chinyamakobvu was arrested for hacking a database to change his grades. Now, he’s representing Zimbabwe in Geneva at the #Hack4SmartSustainableCities conference. Within cybersecurity, there’s a strong undercurrent of ‘even if you lose, you win’ (EIYLYW).

If you embrace the philosophy of ‘systems can be hacked,’ then it’s no surprise that budding hackers apply this to the outside world. This should be of interest to anyone who follows ‘cyberpunk justice.’ Black hat hackers are famous for using their experience to propel them into lucrative, legitimate careers. This Mashable article cites seven examples, but we could cite many more. Hacking can also be lucrative in other legal ways.

For instance, corporations have embraced this reality in the form of ‘bounty programs.’ As Wikipedia points out, “[t]hese programs allow the developers to discover and resolve bugs before the general public is aware of them, preventing incidents of widespread abuse.” I’ll give you three guesses who finds these bugs, and the first two don’t count. Put all those facts in a paint shaker and what comes out? Even if you lose, you win. Breaking the rules is okay, if you do it right.

I’m spitballing some of these concepts right now because I haven’t heard an articulate breakdown from anyone about ethics and hacking yet. What I’ve come up with so far is the value of choice in a world where the space between haves and have-nots grows wider every day.

I mean, how are you supposed to tell kids to follow the rules when the kids who break the law are getting sent to the head of the line? How will you sell them on ‘if you work hard and do things right, you’ll succeed?’ Right now, the world’s actions communicate very clearly that EIYLYW works. The next generation may hear what you say, but they watch what you do. When you reward EIYLYW, you’re telling them what you really care about.

But what kind of future will this lead to? My personal belief system includes integrity and ethics, so I don’t personally subscribe to EIYLYW. I’m a firm believer that it’s not just about what you do, but how you do it. That’s why I encourage people via Mesh to think about building their skills in ethical ways.

On one hand, I can see why many people would embrace EIYLYW.  But without ethics or limits, we’re no better than the bad guys. The closer we get to a systems devoid of accountability, the more important it’s going to be to choose your direction. After all, this isn’t just about you. It’s about all of us.

Mesh and the History of Hacking – Part Three

Back to Part Two

Full Cyberpunk

Continuing our previous discussion about the history of hacking, we now come to the final stage of computer hacking as it enters the 21st Century. It’s easy to say something like ‘9/11 changed everything.’ 9/11 did force a sea change in terms of how governments viewed physical and cyber security, but the factors were in place several years before and continued throughout this time period.

As previously noted, the first elements of cyberwarfare took place in 1991. Five years later, Moonlight Maze was an investigation regarding a massive data breach affecting the Pentagon, NASA, the Department of Energy and other agencies.

In Eastern Europe around the year 2000, ‘cyber arms marketplaces’ began to develop, offering cyber weapons for sale to the highest bidder. Computer crime became cyber terror, with attacks such as the Melissa Virus (1999), ILOVEYOU Virus (2001), and the Code Red Worm (2002). Non-political acts of sabotage caused financial and other types of damage. In 2000, a disgruntled employee caused the release of 800,000 litres of untreated sewage into waterways in Maroochy Shire, Australia.

All of these acts were viewed individually and not given long-term worldwide attention. However, in the post-9/11 era, governments and corporations looked at computer hacking in a different light; hackers were more than innocent pranksters. Now, computer hacking was a form of ‘asymmetric warfare.’  Hackers were potentially soldiers, or terrorists. New guidelines and principles began to take shape.

At the same time, infosec-related incidents took on a new level of urgency and impact. In 2003, the Titan Rain attacks focused on American computer systems, gaining access to many United States defense contractor computer networks including Lockheed Martin, Sandia National Laboratories, Redstone Arsenal, and NASA. In 2007, the country of Estonia suffered an almost crippling level of cyber attack against many government, university, and banking systems. The attacks triggered military organizations to reconsider the importance of network security to modern military doctrine.

Computer hacking also became an avenue for staggering amounts of money. Data breaches rippled across major companies from 2006 forward, and now have become a part of our regular news landscape. Computer hacking also allowed people like Ivan Turchynov to make $100 Million by hacking press release companies for information that would impact the stock market. Entertainment companies like Sony and HBO were hit by hackers interested in upcoming shows and in some cases, the hackers also gained access to email and payroll information.

Governments began using offensive cyberwarfare during this period, as shown in the case of the Stuxnet bot designed to cripple the Iranian nuclear program. Executive orders now ensure sanctions, freezing assets of those who threaten the national security, foreign policy, economic health, or financial stability of the US. Government probes continue to highlight vulnerabilites in every computer system, such as this incident where the avionics of a 737 were remotely penetrated by white hat hackers.

Advanced persistent threats continued through the end of the 2010. Operation Aurora aimed attacks at dozens of organizations and companies including Google, Morgan Stanley and Yahoo. Even as recently as a year ago, cyber-warfare events continue, including a potential attack on the Russian electrical grid by the United States. Yesterday’s newspaper proves that computer hacking is still a thing between nation-state actors, and we can only guess at what the future holds.

The Moral of the Story

So if you’ve come this far, you might be saying “Okay, thanks. So what?” The moral of the story is a bit sad, in that hacking’s storied past has been co-opted by bad people who only see hacking as a means to an end. It wasn’t always like that, but that’s the prevailing argument today. Don’t believe me? Just watch this video about how Hollywood views hacking.

I freely admit: this history is by no means exhaustive. I wrote this to illustrate a central truth about computer hacking that the next generation of geeky kids needs to understand. Hacking isn’t just about curiosity, or discovery anymore. Computer hacking brings you into the orbit of some dangerous people: career criminals, spies, and potential terrorists.

Does that mean all technical knowledge is dangerous? No, of course not. White hat hackers, pen testers, and other associated infosec professionals utilize that knowledge in a safe and responsible way every day.

But here’s the thing. Now that hacking has evolved to its current state, it would be a mistake to think that there’s a safe middle ground. Hacking is largely seen as an extension of criminals and state-acted warfare, is that something you want to be a part of? If you take nothing else from this discussion, let it be this: Technical knowledge can be a powerful tool in the right hands. But, as Uncle Ben said in Spiderman: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’

My hope is that this discussion will help put some historical and cultural context around hacking, and finally to one of the central themes of Mesh:

Mesh and Hacker Culture

One of the things I wanted to do when I started writing Mesh is to focus on the original tenets of hacker culture: discovery, curiosity, and responsibility. Up until the seventies and eighties, to be a hacker was to be one of the strongest geeks in the room. The guy who could do anything, make it work no matter what, and then humbly disappear into the background.

Currently, hacking is seen as a threat and as we grow and change in the 21st century, there will be a need to carve out the culture of hacking and making from cracking and taking. In Mesh, we’ll watch some geeky kids in the future make that discovery.

We’ll cheer Roman, Zeke, Taj, and everyone else as they hack their way past world-changing, death-defying odds. When they finally succeed, we’ll be ready to step forward into the world they risked everything to save. After all, if we aren’t willing to make the world a great place for everyone, what are we doing with ourselves?

Thanks very much for coming along with me on this journey through the history and culture of hacking.

I link a number of articles throughout this essay – but I’d also like to cite these articles, too: