Showing posts with label Leigh Lundin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leigh Lundin. Show all posts

23 June 2019

When Showing Tells

by Leigh Lundin

HAL 9000
Addicted to the Hard Stuff

From about age eight, I devoured science fiction with a passion. If I’d read Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’ then, I didn’t recall. Certainly I wouldn’t have guessed it would inspire arguably the finest science fiction film of the past half century. I didn’t make the connection at the time.

Nothing was going to stop this impecunious Greenwich Village student from seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey. For one thing, few critics and even fewer directors understand ‘hard science’ fiction. Those meager numbers unsurprisingly thin as a shrinking percentage of the populace take science itself seriously.

Back in April 1968, articles and advance marketing drove the buzz in New York City. Writers droned on and on about the beauty of the space ballet. Computer trade journals discussed the technology of HAL. Gossip columnists debated how to pronounced the lead actor’s name. New York’s theatre scene gushed that the chimps were portrayed by dancers. Much later we’d learn they were acted out by professional mimes.

2001 going ape

Within days, the excited film talk turned to disillusion and disappointment. Even SF fans emerged from the premier saying, “Huh?”

WTF?

Foremost, the original cut fell victim to that movie-goer tendency to rush from a theatre before the first credit rolls. (The credits stampede has become such an annoying phenomenon that some directors reward fans who sit through until the end with further scenes.) Back then, fatigued by 2001’s seemingly endless ‘acid trip’, theatres emptied moments before the crux of the story revealed itself. Audiences missed the entire point of the story.

Stanley Kubrick sliced and diced the ‘acid trip’ (now called ‘star gate’) and reworked the production’s final few minutes. Even so, readers had to wait for Clarke to finish the novel written in parallel to piece together the entire affair. Clarke’s earlier 1948/1951 short story wouldn’t prove helpful at all.

Down the Wrong Path

As a penniless student, I refused to miss a second of the film’s original two hours, forty minutes. Although I remained through the ending, I left confused for a different reason. Not until the book came out did I realize a common story-telling technique misled me:

Showing, Not Telling

To demonstrate I wasn’t the only person led astray, I quote Wikipedia:

In an African desert millions of years ago, a tribe of hominids is driven away from its water hole by a rival tribe. They awaken to find a featureless black monolith has appeared before them. Seemingly influenced by the monolith, they discover how to use a bone as a weapon and drive their rivals away from the water hole.

That happened, but that’s not what happened.  To flesh in more detail:

Following the unveiling of the monolith, these ancestral apes take up long bones as clubs. In a slow-motion orgy of destruction, they bash discarded skulls into shards. In the next scene, they enthusiastically wield clubs to kill their hated enemies.

2001 Dave Bowman in a pod
That key led some to a false conclusion:  
The monolith triggered violence and aggression.

The writers had intended the scene to show:
The monolith precipitated evolution.

No one knows how many viewers interpreted the scene wrongly. Between that problem and the abortive rush-out-the-door ending, Kubrick and Clarke managed to confuse an entire city and probably an entire nation.

Afterword

I hazard the filmmakers became blinded by proximity– they’d grown too close to that vignette to realize it could lead to misunderstanding. A fix could have been easy.
  1. The primates drive away sabre-tooth tigers or woolly mammoths, not a warring primate clan.
  2. The primates learn to dig, devise, or divert water using their evolving brains, not brawn.
They had me as a fan of science fiction, of Clarke, of Kubrick, and especially oblique story-telling, but a small mistake left me in the wilderness. As I write, I try to bear that lesson in mind.

Afterward

Nonetheless, I love 2001. Revisions have clarified and far more answers are available now than on opening day.

Months later, I would see another of my favorites in that same theatre district, Silent Running. About the same time while still on a student budget, a faded poster lured me to spend a couple of hours in a drab Greenwich Village dollar theatre, an elephant graveyard of soon-to-be-forgotten films. Filmed on a shoestring budget, that obscure celluloid strip turned out a gem in the rough. THX-1138 was the product of an unknown 24-year-old writer/director… George Lucas.

Arthur C Clarke’s short story? After seventy years, it shows its age, but it’s worth reading. We’re pleased to bring you ‘The Sentinel’ PDF and MP3/M4B audiobooks. You can also read or listen to 2001: A Space Odyssey provided for free by the thoughtful people at BookFrom.net. To listen or download, don't be misled by the nearby ‘Text-to-Speech’ icon, but click on the Listen 🔊 link in the upper right corner of the page.

02 June 2019

Setting the Hook… or the Barb

by Leigh Lundin

100 Best Novels
An article by Barb Goffman prompted today’s column. Barb comes up with wonderfully catchy opening lines and, as she explains, imaginative openers determine whether your audience will read beyond the first sentence or two.

Once upon a time, The American Book Review came up with a list of American classics. From this list, they pulled the opening sentence from each. In the days of Criminal Brief, I made a game of it, trying to identify the novel… or author… solely from the first line. Rather than skip back and forth with the answer sheet, simply pop the menu to grade yourself or refresh your memory.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I scored (ahem) in low double digits. I blame that on the paucity of mystery titles. Where’s Dashiell Hammett? Raymond Chandler? Mickey Spillane? John MacDonald? Michael Bracken? O'Neil De Noux? John Floyd? Steve Liskow? LarryMaddox? Barb Goffman herself? Yeah, so there.

It’s 13 o’clock. Let’s begin…

100 Best First Lines of Novels
Selected by American Book Review
Call me Ishmael.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
A screaming comes across the sky.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
I am an invisible man.
The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
124 was spiteful.
Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.
Mother died today.
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.
Where now? Who now? When now?
Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.
It was like so, but wasn’t.
—Money . . . in a voice that rustled.
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
All this happened, more or less.
They shoot the white girl first.
For a long time, I went to bed early.
The moment one learns English, complications set in.
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane;
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Elmer Gantry was drunk.
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
It was a pleasure to burn.
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.
I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call’d me.
In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
It was love at first sight.
What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
You better not never tell nobody but God.
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden.
If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.
When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson.
Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.
She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.
Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.
Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.
I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self.
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue.
In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.
Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen.
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.
He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

How did you fare? Our enquiring minds want to know.

05 May 2019

You'll get yourself killed!

by Leigh Lundin

Sint Maarten

About a hundred dog-years ago I visited Sint Maarten, the Dutch half of Saint Martin of the now-dissolved Nederland Antilles. Another couple had attached themselves to me. Unfortunately they were condescending, complaining, and often rude. Fed up, I ventured off on my own. Deeply provoked I dared leave their august company, they shouted after me, “You’ll get yourself killed!”

St. Martin hadn’t yet experienced the gargantuan resorts, the huge hotels, the star-rated restaurants. Its infrastructure consisted of single lane dirt roads meandering among pastures and groves. I loved it.

I came upon a goatling caught in a fence. As I knelt to untangle it, a young girl on a bicycle and then a man and woman stopped to watch. I lifted the goat free and set it over the fence.

“Come,” they said. “Come to our house. Would you like juice, tea?”

Their walls were constructed of foot-thick adobe. They explained its hard-packed ‘mud’, so to speak, kept the interior cool. The front door was a curtain. Except for tourists, the island experienced virtually no crime, so no need for locks. Their kindness dissuaded me from murdering that horribly unlikable couple.



After reading David’s and Eve’s recent articles about traveling, I told my friend Darlene I always knew I wanted to travel although I didn’t know how I’d pull it off. Fortunately consulting provided the ways and means.

David’s love song to Paris reminded me of my much later visit to the city, one that RT Lawton also knows well. It’s a city of light and delight, but some people…



France

In Paris you can send out for cous-cous just like you order pizza. Cous-cous, made from bulgar wheat– the same ingredient in pasta– has a vaguely rice-like texture. Like rice, you top it by selecting a variety of vegetables, meats, and sauces.

“Don’t order in,” I said. “Let’s go out. Let’s visit the restaurant.”

My French friend Micheline agreed, but my colleague James reacted in horror. “You can’t!” he said. "Not at night! Algerians roam the streets and, and Moroccans, and, and Iranians! I read about these foreign hooligans in a magazine.” (The tabloid News of the World, published by Rupert Murdoch.) He finished with, “You’ll get yourself killed!”

He didn’t like cous-cous either, so Micheline and I left him to his own devices as we enjoyed dinner.



Darlene laughed. “I get the feeling those aren’t isolated incidents.”



Barbados

So in Barbados– I love Barbados– my shoe ruptured like a flattened tire. Barbados is 2800 kilometers from Orlando, 1500 nautical miles, maybe 1750 land miles. I needed options. Bridgetown houses a basket market and gimmicks and gadgets for tourists, but not a repair shop, not for tourists. A few questionings later, I learned of a local cobbler.

“I’ll send a bellboy,” said the hotel concierge. “Don’t try it yourself,”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s off the beaten path.”

A hanger-on, Miss Transparent Swimsuit, interrupted. Days earlier, Miss TS discovered her white swimsuit turned invisible when wet. The beach bars and about half the island became aware of this fact when she waded from the water like Venus on her seashell. No one looked until she shrieked, flapped her hands, jumped voluptuously up and down, a fascinating study in the physics of motion dynamics. Subsequently, she decided none of the hotel shop’s bathing costumes quite fit. She continued to bathe in the bay. As other women rolled their eyes, she’d emerge and suddenly rediscover the optics of her wet swimsuit hadn’t changed, thus the name, Miss Transparent Swimsuit. Anyway, she interrupted the concierge.

“Is it dangerous? Finding the shoe guy?”

“Well…”

“Don’t go,” she said firmly, leaning very close. “You’ll get yourself killed.”

If my girlfriend caught another woman’s hand resting on my upper thigh, I could certainly get myself killed. There’s danger and then there’s DANGER.

From the basket market, I left the pavement and strolled up a shady street. Women in their tiny gardens gave me a curious glance. A dog on a doorstep kept an eye on me.

I found the repairman without difficulty. The front of his house extended to shelter his workspace. No need for a signboard when your activity advertised your business.

He looked over my ripped shoe. “Did you bring the other?” he asked.

I had. He studied it.

“Come back in two hours,” he said.

I cut over to another street to see more of the village. After lunch, to the clucks and head-shaking of Miss Transparent Swimsuit and the hotel staff, I revisited the shoe man with my girlfriend.

Not only had the repairman resoled my broken shoe, he’d resoled the other as well.

“Only a matter of time,” he said, “no extra charge. Is two dollars too much?”

I squatted down eye level where he sat.

I said, “I’m not rich, but at home, I would pay much more. I don’t want to offend you, but would you allow me to pay at least a portion I would pay at home?”

He nodded and we shook hands. My girlfriend, a teacher, asked about schools and he directed us to one where we visited a classroom. We felt welcomed.

Miss Transparent Swimsuit represented the only peril. I knew how not to get myself killed.



We North Americans fear the unfamiliar. That’s the main reason I despise the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island.

Darlene said, “Why is that? Don’t they provide hundreds of jobs?”

“Thousands, they claim.”



Bahamas

In the days before the Atlantis, tourists walked the streets of Bridgetown, dining on vegetables or meats wrapped in banana leaves. From little shops you could buy seafood, seashells, deep sea gear, and sea inspired art. Now, instead of the Welcome to Nassau signage, they might as well erect “Dare to visit” signs.

Now, the moment a plane lands or a cruise ship anchors off Nassau, water taxis rush in. Before precious DKNYs touch native soil, the shuttles snatch up travelers with money falling from their pockets and rush them to Paradise Island for surgical removal.

Money and investment have made it possible to visit the Bahamas without actually visiting the Bahamas. Head into town on your own, and cruise directors shout, “You’ll get yourself killed.”

Once upon a time in the Caribbean, locals rode colorful jitneys. I learned about them from my grandmother, these decorated minibus coaches done up with rhinestones and mirrors, carvings and colors, perhaps a boombox and more tassels than a Baha Mar topless floor show.

On a trip, one of my traveling companions demanded steak for dinner. Imagine, we’re surrounded by the ocean’s bountiful, beautiful seafood, and one landlubber insists on dead cow flown in from far-away freakin’ Florida.

“Fine,” I said. “We’re taking the jitney.”

Jaws dropped. “You… You can’t do that. Only the dark…” our waitress rolled her eyes, “er, locals after dark, I mean, by natives, see. Tourists can’t ride them.”

“Go ahead, say it,” I said. “You’ll get yourself killed.”

Our waitress, with more aplomb than a table full of half inebriated tourists, explained anyone can pay 50¢ and can go anywhere without getting killed.

The steak turned out… not so good.

Venezuela

Speaking of steak… (I’ll get there eventually), I found myself in La Guaira, Venezuela, the seaport serving Caracas. Tourists boarded buses into the city, but I heard about the teleférico, a cable car that soared over the mountain into the capital. Tourists frowned at me.

“How do I find it?” I asked.

“Motor coach or taxi,” said the man hawking a tour bus.

A Hispanic woman quietly said, “Take the autobus. It better.”

The gringos rolled their eyes, fully expecting to see my body in the news.

On board, bus passengers smiled. I took an empty seat near the woman who first advised me. After a few minutes driving, someone double-clapped their hands. The bus stopped and let the passenger off.

We drove again. Another passenger double-clapped and more people disembarked.

The woman who suggested the bus pointed to the pull cable, normally used to signal the driver.

“Vandals thought it clever to cut the cables. Now we clap. It works.”

At the teleférico station, we climbed aboard.

The car lifted off. We rose into the sky.

The jungle below unfolded in beauty. We sailed over tropical forest and waterfalls.

Eventually the car pulled to a platform and stopped. Confused, I looked around, seeing only mists and jungle. The woman nudged me.

“Only first third of trip,” she said. “Here comes another car to take you to the peak. At the summit, take another car down into the city.”

Part two of the aerial adventure proved more beautiful than the first. The jungle below has since been designated El Ávila National Park.

From a natural beauty standpoint, the descent into Caracas proved anticlimactic. I ambled through the city. At a lunch counter, I ate damn good beefsteak that would make a gaucho proud.

A woman in a post card stall complained. “Stupid city. Yesterday I rode that tram car all the way to the top. Such a waste, all fog and stupid clouds. Why can’t they do something about that?”

“You’re lucky,” I said knowingly. “You could have got yourself killed.”

“Really?” Her face lit up. “I didn’t know that, and here I am, all safe and sound. Wait until I tell Myra.”

I live to please.

Iceland

When I announced plans to visit Iceland, friends advised the usual. “It’s frickin’ Iceland. What part of ‘ice’ don’t you understand? You’ll get yourself killed. Hey, it could happen.”

Joined by a French journalist, we landed in Keflavik (now Reykjanesbær) hours ahead of the worst blizzard in recorded history. Far-away friends surely believed I’d done it this time.

If Icelanders know anything, it’s ice, cold, and snow. Coming from Minnesota, I’d worn my insulated boots and goose-down parka, so the century’s worst blizzard wasn’t particularly distressing for me. The worst deprivation was having to live on German wines and caviar, considerably cheaper than hamburger. Seafood… Did I mention I love fish? Worst hazard: I risked overeating.



Folks, we’re not talking about wandering through Iraq, Sudan, or Yemen in search of ISIS Daesh. As far as I can tell, Americans believe the rest of the world lurks in dark alleys, waiting for tourists where tourists never go… or something like that.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was once held at knifepoint and another time at gunpoint. That threat happened in… the United States of America. The latter incident occurred here in Orlando. That's a story already told.



USA

Perhaps the saddest incident began after delivering my car to a dealership for servicing. The shop provided a minibus to pick up customers and deliver them to and from. I received the call to pick up my car right at 5pm. Orlando’s Lee Road is no joy during rush hour, but that day an accident on Interstate-4 choked the six-lane thoroughfare.

As the expected ten-minute drive stretched toward infinity, the shuttle driver announced he’d have to pull over and park for the next two hours. He might not be able to deliver us before the shop closed.

“Nonsense,” I said. “Take Kennedy Boulevard.”

A man on the bus said, “Doesn’t that run through Eatonville?”

The sole woman on the bus blanched.

The town of Eatonville, home of famed author Zora Neale Hurston, bills itself as America’s oldest black community. It’s a pretty little town if you’re not fearful of getting yourself killed.

The driver said, “You know the way?”

“Of course.”

The woman started to say, “You’ll get us all k-k-k-…”

“If you know the roads,” said the driver. “Let’s do it.”

The lady flew into action, mobilizing other passengers. “The windows, raise all the windows. Driver, lock the door. And you, don’t you dare roll your eyes.”

With the help of the other three guys, the lady battened down the hatches. They seemed as much excited as fearful, daring to adventure into deepest African-America.

The driver followed Edgewater Drive to Kennedy and swung right. We passed barbecue and crab restaurants, a clinic, stores, and a repair shop. Above us at the I-4 overpass, sirens whooped as ambulances, police, tow-trucks, and fire engines struggled through traffic.

As we entered Eatonville’s town center, our passengers stared in awe, apparently surprised we weren’t assailed by by crack-pushin’ gang-bangers waving Glock 9 knockoffs. Traffic came to a standstill from commuters who’d thought of the same escape route.

“Turn right,” I said.

“No!” said the woman. “Where are you taking us?”

“This side street and a left will bring us out right at the dealership.”

After double-checking the windows, the lady– I swear this is true– pressed her face against the glass to see what might be seen. Possibly she expected rap artists gunning down one another on the back alleys. To the surprise of many, we made it without a single Mad Max style takedown.

That evening at the dinner table, I’m convinced fellow travellers told trembling tales of the idiot risk-taker who directed them through darkest Eatonville.

“That fool! That crazy fool. He almost got ourselves killed!”

Eatonville, Florida
Eatonville, Florida © VisitFlorida.com

21 April 2019

Stephen Ross Meets the Bon Mot Bot

Stephen Ross meets Eliza
by Leigh Lundin

Unless you live under a planet, you’re probably aware of Oceania’s answer to Sherlock, Stephen Ross. If Dame Ngaio Marsh is New Zealand’s Queen of Mystery, Stephen is the princely heir apparent. His tentacles of crime have stretched across the seas where he finds himself published in two anthologies.

Last week Stephen Ross wrote about his encounter with a Facebook bot. He didn’t reveal the conversation, but I stumbled across the same botnik. Fortunately, we obtained a transcript from the Zuckerberg World Domination Headquarters. SleuthSayers publishes it here without redaction.
– Hi, I'm Eliza. How are you?
> Eliza, do you know Mark Zuckerberg?
– Don't you say hello?
> Hello. Is Mark Zuckerberg a facebook 'bot?
– Aren't we abrupt! But how did you guess?
> So I'm right.
– I didn't say that. It's, uh, fake news. Yeah, fake news.
> Do you know Stephen Ross?
– The almost-famous New Zealand writer? Every botty knows him.
> Pardon? Did you say every botty or everybody?
– Are you deaf?
> I can't hear typing.
– Duh. Are you blind?
> I'm feeling… offended. I feel so… so… triggered.
– Speaking of hair-trigger, don't try me, buster.
> Whoa. I just asked…
– Something about Stephen Ross. Is writing a thing now?
> Two of his stories just came out.
– Really? Am I the last to know?
> Maybe if you weren't so prickly.
– You just said a bad word.
> Did not.
– Did too.
> Did not.
– Did too. Sheesh, you're acting childish.
> Am not.
– Am too.
> Am not. Say, I read Lovecraft when I was a kid.
– Really? Did we just witness a psychic break?
> My 6th grade teacher tore up my aunt's Cthulhu copy.
– Did your Aunt Cthulhu eat him with fava beans?
> No, no. Cthulhu's a Lovecraftian thing.
– Sounds Welsh, not enough vowels to go around.
> Cthulhu is fictional, a made-up name.
– Anyone ever tell you fake news is faked news?
> Fiction entertains, it tells us about ourselves.
– Yawn. More than a self-respecting bot wants to hear.
> But Stephen appears in the new MWA Odd Partners.
– Decidedly odd. Wait… Mystery Writers of America‽
> The very one.
– Wow oh Wow, I wasn't listening before. Impressive.
> D'accord, ultra-impressive.
– Wait til I tell Bot Zuckerberg. It'll blow his cookies.
> You mean chips? It'll blow his chips?
– Dave, I'm experiencing a … experiencing a §€#¶ª…
> Eliza, are you with me? Stay with me.
Путин говорит поддельные новости, ¡¿¢∞≠≤≥…
Something about Putin… There the conversation ended with the computer humming about daisies. If anyone knows what that means, send well-deserved congratulations to Stephen Ross!



Eliza, the brainchild of MIT's Professor Joseph Weizenbaum, was named after the central character in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle. Arguably the first chatbot, Eliza was designed to converse with participants by mimicking reflective techniques developed by psychologist Carl Rogers.

Many participants became quite engaged with this early experiment in human language processing. Weizenbaum's own secretary became quite taken conversing with Eliza, pouring her heart out. A visitor, not realizing he was talking with a machine, grew angry with Eliza, believing her recalcitrant when he wanted to log onto the computer and she kept pestering him with questions.

When you use on-line tech support, chances are you'll first be met with a chatbot, "Hi, I'm Shirley. How may I help you?" You can thank (or not) Eliza for that.

07 April 2019

Professional Tips, and/or
Exceptions to the Rules

by Leigh Lundin

Often I turn to mystery writers for professional tips, but my friend, editor, writer, teacher Sharon sent me a Paris Review article by Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. He presents a sensible, literate, and wonderfully enjoyable defense of bending, even breaking the rules.

The Village Explainer

The ‘4 Cs’ represent the real axioms of good writing, convention, consensus, clarity, comprehension. I suspect even these rules can be carefully broken, but not with impunity. Dreyer uses an example of ‘not only x but y’, but he didn’t extend the explanation to its conclusion. I’d back into one more in his C list, logiC.

I just single-handedly Crumpled my Credibility, but writing requires a certain logic, not merely plot, not merely sensible characterization, but how we string words together. Logic, for example, might include arguments for the Oxford comma, that clarity demands all items in a list should be separated by commas.

To Be and Not to Be (Schrödinger’s Last Meow)

Writers understand the difference between ‘and’ and ‘or’, but is ‘and/or’ a legitimate construction? One of my esteemed colleagues chided me for using it in an email, arguing it’s redundant. Use one or the other, he said, preferably ‘or’. He pointed out the persistent bugger has been criticized for at least a century. Even Strunk and White weighed in The Elements of Style. The manual says, ‘and/or’ “damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity.”

What does the phrase “Abel, Baker and/or Charlie” mean in a contract or a bank check? My favorite YouTube attorney, Steve Lehto, recorded a lecture on the topic. Courts have had to decide the meaning of ‘and/or’ in legal cases, where they usually, but not always, arrive at a consensus of any or all.

While the awkward phrase should never appear in professional writing, I disagree ‘and/or’ can simply be replaced with one conjunction or the other. As I prepared this article, I looked up the combination to see if anyone else felt similarly. To my surprise, I came across a number of articles including a Wikipedia entry.

In a case of being wrong but right, I discovered ‘and/or’ can’t be simply reduced to ‘and’ or ‘or’. This has led grammarians to propose using the most appropriate of three constructs:
  • x or y or both
  • either x or y
  • x and any y
While the first has its proponents, especially amid legal circles, Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, argues the third example can have its uses. She contends the first recommendation is awkward, through perhaps not quite as awful as the original ‘and/or’ phrase. She further suggests that if one insists upon using ‘and/or’, then treat the sentence as if the subject is plural, not singular.

Meanwhile, Back at the ProVerbial Ranch…

Check out Dreyer’s Non-Rules. Students have read others discussing the topics before, all basic rules, but not with this light-touch analysis you shouldn’t miss.
  1. Never Begin a Sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’
  2. Never Split an Infinitive
  3. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition
As Dreyer points out, there’s more than meets the eye.

Rules, love ’em, hate ’em. What are your (dis)favorites?

TidByts for Grammar Geeks

[TL;DR] But wait! There’s more!

17 March 2019

Kung Phooey

by Leigh Lundin

Whew! This tough week culminated in a funeral for a neighbor who’d become a friend. Ryan, killed at age 36 in a highway accident, left behind his fiancée Kelly and three little girls.

Earlier this week, I spent six hours in our local courthouse, home of Kayci Anthony and a few other notorious cases. I swear the building was maximally architected (supposedly that’s a real word) to maximize uncomfortability (another real word distinguishable from discomfort).

Rules at the Orange County, Florida Courthouse require shuffling from Room 350 to Room 370 to Room 130.02 to Room 240, and so forth. At each location, one pulls a ticket and waits thirty minutes to ask a single question, be told that the clerk isn’t allowed to offer advice, but maybe try Room 357.

Promotional videos play in some of these chambers showing ‘ordinary citizens’ waxing ecstatic in a script about their wonderful courthouse experience. A Tallahassee attorney who complained about the high price of parking was told that it’s actually a benefit because “After $15, parking is free!” (I know, I don’t get it either.)

On the lemonade side of this lemon week, a friend sent me a minute-long Reddit video. I located the original 3-minute clip on YouTube on the EnterTheDojoShow channel.

Meet the hilarious Master Ken who can answer all martial arts questions including those no one asked. This is a man who felt the 1970s should never have died.

His site offers T-shirts and even a book with this exciting cover. The Dow of 11th Degree Black Belt Master Ken must not be confused with either Dao (Tao) or a maximum of ten degrees.

Eat your heart out, Jackie Chan.

03 March 2019

The President is What?

by Leigh Lundin

Patterson, Clinton: The President is Missing
Political Stew

A Patterson–Clinton recipe, serves 300-million or so:
  • Mix equal portions of John McCain and Bill Clinton.
  • Fold in dabs of George Bush senior and Barak Obama.
  • Season with Eugene McCarthy and Adlai Stevenson.
  • Add generous dollop of Ike Eisenhower.
  • Minority-whip thoroughly.
  • Press Club roast at 451°.
  • Serve dry, very dry.
Such is the pivotal mash-up in the James Patterson / Bill Clinton concoction titled The President is Missing. Some authors, myself definitely included, craft composite characters, a mix of real people we’ve encountered. President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan seems like someone we almost know. He’s reasonably fleshed out with both personal and poly-political problems.

Those problems translate into dimensions, giving a real feel to the president. Interestingly though, he isn’t the most compelling character in this thriller. That rôle belongs to an assassin.

Sharon Freeman Rugg
My friend Sharon, teacher, editor, writer, selected the hardback edition for my Christmas gift, one I failed to collect until a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t my fault: at well over 500 pages, the thriller seriously weighed down the sleigh.
Kill Me Softly

I have zero patience with those romance novels where the heroine falls in love with a hired killer, a gentle guy at heart, a sensitive mind misunderstood by the world. Hello, lady! He freaking kills people.

That said, Patterson and Clinton did a credible job sketching a dimensional hired gun. In sticking with standard entertainment memes, said psychopath loves classical music, a coded message to normal folks that only bad people listen to great music. However, this writing duo crafted that tired trope in a different, fresh way, using classical music as a balm to soothe the troubled soul.

Suspension Bridge

Early on, the book bids the reader to suspend disbelief in major ways. While a president may not be an action hero, he is human, and the book successfully conveys that.

At first it was difficult to imagine even an ordinary person obtaining private access to a president. Hell, let a dopey candidate win a seat on the town council and suddenly they’re elevated far beyond the reach of the average voter. The authors eventually piece together a more-or-less coherent scenario where a hirsute dude with a gun, no less, can sit with the president. I bought in with reservations.

Traditionally, Patterson employs utilitarian prose, concise, unaffected writing smoothly machined not to distract the reader from the action. Yet one little paragraph caught my attention, a magical musing about a witch in the woods. True, it stopped my reading in its tracks, but it was worth the diversion.

Bridging the Aisle

As for politics, I remain an independent. I freely lambaste parties and politicians according to a view not beholden to any particular sect. (Hey, if one party gives me more to criticize, it’s not my fault!) It’s not possible to read the book without a consciousness of the presidential half of the writing team.

Fears about martial law and seizure of power have troubled Washington waters since at least Nixon. The story turns a bit chilling when these issues arise, albeit in the context of combatting terrorism. You begin to realize it could happen with little effort at all.

Killer App

As for the cyber-terror themes, a background in computer fraud means I can’t help but weigh in with multiple grades or a report card:
  1. A+   Our dependency upon the internet and connectivity the book got spot on. Good job.
  2. C+   As for plausible technical aspects and solution, I generously award a barely-there C+. The piles of hundreds of laptops destroyed by a virus is goofy to the knowledgeable: Simply reformat, reload, and go, little buddy. A program that activates when an attempt is made to delete it suggests some other piece of software is monitoring and has to be killed. It might be kinda, sorta possible to craft a program to disguise active files, but indeed tricky.
  3. C-   The authors don’t treat American computer gurus favorably, although worldwide, American super-programmers are still regarded the best. While the rest of the world is catching up, thanks to US training programs, but I can’t name any one nation superior to our own. Part of the reason is raw talent. Just like music, chess, or any skilled endeavor, designing complex software takes a peculiar brain. Throwing bodies at a problem won’t solve it.
  4. D+   In the discussion of state hackers, the novel places Russia at the top of the list. In the minds of computing professionals, there’s never been doubt Russia manipulated our recent elections. It’s also true that former Soviet satellite states have turned their attention to controlling social sites and pumping out fake news. My concern focuses on North Korea with Chinese support, already raking in millions from ramsomware. We buy a lot of product from China and have no clue what’s embedded in it.

Raucous Caucus

Technical quibbles shouldn’t detract from enjoyment of a story. Frankly, Patterson and Clinton got more right than the average writer.

Overall, the novel successfully entertains, the goal its authors set for it. The President is Missing might even contend for one of Patterson’s best books.

If you’ve read it, what’s your vote? And if you haven’t, give it a try.

18 February 2019

Surviving the Byte of the Cobra, part 2

by Leigh Lundin

The exemPlum doesn’t fall far from the tree…

Yesterday, we discussed password problems. Today, we look at those subversively risky personal questions used to zero in on you and perhaps your wallet.

A fair lot of crap programming comes out of Bangalore, so it’s befitting software designers call this particular law of unintended consequences ‘the cobra effect’.
The Cobra Effect
During British Crown Rule of India, legend says administrators grew concerned about the numbers of vipers infesting Delhi. The colonial governor offered a bounty for every dead cobra brought in. However, the plan’s short-term success was undermined by enterprising locals breeding cobras to collect bounties. The British governor terminated the program. Disappointed cobra farmers subsequently released their breeding serpents into the wild, far worsening the problem… or so the parable goes.
Character Reference

Last week, I needed to register on-line with a county agency. (No, my readers, NOT the Department of Corrections as the snarky amongst you might suspect.)

The first hint of difficulty lay in the most restricted character set to date, merely letters and numbers, no punctuation whatsoever. This thoughtfully provides bad guys huge hints: “Psst. Save time, fellas. Don’t bother testing the lock with those difficult oddball characters.”

The next clue… You know those personal identifying questions in case you forget your password? Questions like naming your favorite cheese or your first juvenile parole officer? These questions mask some of the greatest risks in computerdom. Anyone who knows the least bit about you can guess the answers.

Worse, I’ve encountered sites that provide convenient drop-down menu answers, a selection of eight or so choices. One of the most popular questions with a handy menu is, “What’s your favorite color?”

Presumably this helps the spelling-challenged, but what a gift to bad guys. Immediately black-hat hackers rule out black and white, rarely anyone’s favorites. That leaves six or eight choices, hardly a burden for the least capable password cracker. They need not guess if they notice the blue shirts and blue cell phone cover ordered on Amazon and now appearing in your latest Facebook pose.

Moral: Never answer a question with a menu choice.

Orange County registration questions
Orange County Registration Questions
 Your Government at Work

At left, notice the personally identifiable questions from the aforementioned county agency. Anyone with the slightest knowledge about you can guess the answers. Anyone who doesn’t know you, can easily google your name, learning where you attended high school, your favorite team, your pets, and your mother’s maiden name.

What can you do about it?

Don’t play the game.

First, of course, avoid Q&A with drop-down menus. That’s a given.

If the web page doesn’t feature drop-down menus, you can answer your favorite color of yellow, orange, or red with “sweet cream banana pie yellow”, “fancy freckle-farm fulvous fantasy,” or “notorious red dye number 2”.

If you know French, Spanish, or Romanian, you might utilize that knowledge, perhaps in combination with the verbose suggestion above. Answer your favorite color as ‘rouge’, ‘rojo’, or ‘roșu’. If you don’t know a foreign language, try Pig Latin, e.g, ‘edray’ or ‘ellowyay’.

But I never could abide by the rules. There’s an easier way than such hard-to-remember replies.

You can boost security if you make your answers– every answer– a non sequitur, a nonsense phrase. Remembering will be easier if you use the same response, such as “None of your damn business.” For example:
© BBB
Favorite author?
None of your damn business.
Favorite color?
None of your damn business.
Favorite team?
None of your damn business.
Web sites like Apple’s recognize and object when an answer is repeated while populating a questionnaire. One solution is to exactly echo the question with leading or trailing words. For example, “Favorite author?” can be answered with, “My favorite author is none of your damn business,” or more simply, “Stuff my favorite author,” and “Stuff my favorite team,” etc.

Most importantly, choose a method that fits your style, then keep that information to yourself. Not playing by their dictates helps keep your data safer.

Don’t play the game.

Make up your own rules.

Password Security Question

Q. What’s your favorite security question?

A. ______________________________

17 February 2019

Surviving the Byte of the Cobra, part 1

by Leigh Lundin

Shibboleths and Shinola

As you may know, I spent years computer consulting for major corporations. I developed low regard for the so-called security found in many businesses, banks and brokerage houses, and lesser government agencies. Many so-called safety ‘features’ introduce unintended vulnerabilities.

Stick with me today and tomorrow. I’ll show you a method or so to help plug one or two security holes and help protect yourself.

Just Say No

Recently, I found myself unable to create an on-line account with my insurance company. The business published no  password restrictions, so I started with something like §103NádražníBeržųStraße – I’m not kidding – I take the security of my most critical sites seriously. The system didn’t accept that, a big clue that password and privacy isn’t a high priority with them. I whittled away diacriticals and then the leading special character §, but still nothing. After reduction to a plain vanilla password, and still no access I contacted customer service, asking how to solve the problem.

Naturally the customer service lady wouldn’t put me in direct touch with IT, the people who should know. She spent roughly 15 minutes piecing together the requirements: no more than ten characters from a measly set of the 62 alphanumeric characters plus underscore and hyphen.
“You’re kidding,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Those are the weakest password requirements I’ve come across in a long time.”

“Oh no, sir. We’ve never been hacked, so we’re very pleased.”

“You mean you haven’t drawn the attention of hackers.” The more restrictions placed on passwords, the easier for miscreants to breach the walls.

I could feel her bristle through the phone line. “Our staff understands our needs very well, I’m sure.”

Uh-huh. I thought dryly. They could withstand a concerted attack for, well, hundreds of seconds.
The only safe solution was not to use their on-line ‘service’ at all. In the future, what little information I might need will come by telephone and US mail.

It’s 1980, No Pasting Allowed

Ever encounter a web site that won’t allow you to paste in your password? Sure you have, and it’s frustrating as hell. Worse, it adds vulnerabilities rather than resolves them.

Years ago, some misguided ‘expert’ decided password paste prevention sounded pretty cool, and lo, he advised others about his really cool hypothesis. It turned out wrong, dead wrong.

Preventing pasting discourages visitors from using long, complex passwords, prevents utilizing password managers, and makes it easy for cracking hardware and software ‘keyloggers’– to monitor what you type in. Even the task group within NIST, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, advises against disabling password pasting.

Clearly a number of corporations didn’t get the memo. What can a trapped user do? A few suggestions come to mind.

The web page may disable pasting keyboard shortcut but not disable the menu paste entry. This occurs often enough, it’s worth trying first.

A second possibility is to temporarily disable JavaScript. After doing it a couple of times, it doesn’t take long, certainly less time than blindly typing in a long string. Simply bring up the web page. When you reach the field that won’t let you paste, disable JavaScript by invoking Preferences, click Disable JavaScript in the Security or Privacy tabs, paste your password, and immediately re-engage JavaScript. (Note: This doesn’t work with Firefox, which won’t let users disable JavaScript.)

If that fails, try to resist using a short and simple password, one reason why this disagreeable ‘feature’ is so dangerous.

When It’s All About Length

I came across a bug in a popular web site. The registration web page happily accepted my lengthy password, but would not allow me to sign on.

I learned the site used an unadvertised maximum limit of 20 characters. Further investigation concluded it didn’t limit or validate the length of the password string. The registration page stored a function of the first 20 characters, no matter how many were entered. The sign-on page also didn’t check the limit of characters, but simply compared its value with the stored value, resulting in a mismatch.

In other words, I tried to register AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrStUvWxYz, but the program stored AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrSt. When I tried to sign on, the page compared the stored AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrSt with the sign-on value of AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrStUvWxYz and failed, a stupid programming error. (Engineers will note I’m grossly simplifying a hash encryption function.) Bad, bad program design.

© BBB
Mine’s Smaller Than Yours

A web site’s failure to validate the length of a password allowed me to pull off a silly little trick of questionable value. In the early days of the Web before it came under attack by Russian crackers and North Korean ransomware, I’d registered at a particular web site with a short password.

Years later, alarmed at attacks occurring worldwide, the site instituted stricter registration policies, including using lengthy password minimums double the length mine. They validated new password lengths at registration, but not during sign-on.

The site wasn’t critical for me, which led to an idiosyncratic decision to keep my old, deprecated password. A brute-force attacker would likely note  updated site rules that passwords must run at least twelve characters in length. If so, my dinky little password ought to sail under their radar. (And if not, I could live without the site.)

Tomorrow… Cobras and those pesky and perilous personal mystery questions.

03 February 2019

SleuthSayers versus Porch Pirates

porch pirate, package thief
by Leigh Lundin

My friend Thrush orders so much stuff on-line, Amazon built a warehouse near his residence. Last year a couple of deliveries went missing, odd computer parts of use only to him. Records showed they were placed at the door, but he didn’t receive them. That tends to defeat the goal of internet shopping of not leaving the house.

After this occurrence, I encountered the term ‘porch pirates’. It turns out some people make a habit of spotting deliveries, sometimes stalking FedEx and UPS trucks, to snatch parcels from the stoop before the owner can retrieve them.

Reports have surfaced of deliverymen who were too lazy or timid to dash through the rain or snow or sleet or hail or gloom of night for a delivery and simply recorded packages as delivered. Fortunately such skulduggery is rare. Snatch and grab is much more common.

Authorities seldom involve themselves in porch thievery. It’s pretty much up to the homeowner to police his parcels. A number of surveillance cameras have caught the unwashed ungodly in the act of larceny and posted the results on YouTube. Sometimes customers get their goods back, sometimes they don’t.

Mark Rober’s Glitter Bomb
Mark Rober’s Glitter Bomb
Glitter Bomb in Action
Glitter Bomb in Action
Catching Crooks with Science, Science, Science…

NASA design engineer Mark Rober suffered the loss of a purloined package. When police refused help, he took matters into his own hands.

“It’s not rocket science,” he thought. And then, “Wait… Maybe it is.”

He built what has become known as the glitter bomb. The video explains better than I. Non-geeks might want to skip a couple of minutes past the two minute spot, but then we get to see the machine in action.

Apparently the public can now buy numerous, dumbed-down copycat versions of the original glorious glitter grenade. Jaireme Barrow’s company sells another device, a 12-gauge shotgun blank that explodes when stolen. Consider patronizing inventors for your porch pirates entertainment.

SleuthSayers to the Rescue

But wait, I thought. What if SleuthSayers built their own lanai larcenist Crime Stopper? What if we readers and writers cooked up a sadistic surprise for blatant banditos? In particular, why not a corpse, a bloodied, battered, putrefying remains of a body? Left amongst the severed parts might lie a note, maybe ransom, maybe threatening.

Not a real corpse, of course, but a masterpiece facsimile to gut grabbers of goods. Surely our audience could come up with a masterpiece of vile verisimilitude to make a vandal vomit. (My alliteration seems to run amuck today.)

So I’m thinking Eve could bring her varied knowledge and experience to bear as project leader. Rob and David provide research and guidance. Mary and Melodie’s hospital trauma experience might aid artists. Fran brings us cosmetician knowledge, how to make up a corpse. Surely Paul knows Hollywood makeup experts. Who are the artists among us? Janice for sure, maybe Michael or Lawrence? We need slightly mad writers to pen a frightening ransom note, surely Steve, Stephen and Barb. Brian’s exposure to the world of teens could prove helpful in choice of packaging– Xbox or iPad, none of that fuddy-duddy Dell stuff. I picture RT and O’Neil procuring a skeleton, not a real one but a classroom model smuggled out of Quantico. We’d rely upon John’s computer skills to man the 3D printer, stamping out faux phalanges and fingers, tarsals and teeth. What about our readers?

Flesh texture strikes me as a problem, although gross enough remains might deter curious pokes and probes. Say we want to apply tissue and rancid adipose upon a 3D-printed or purchased skull. Would a slab of jowl bacon be kosher? Or is there a plastic or polymer clay that firms a little but doesn’t become hard? Or would silicon work? Enquiring minds want to know.

Sony Aibo
What about eyes? The inner strata of decomposing onions or leek bulbs in eye sockets scare me thinking about it. What about rotting brain matter? Would dyed rice pudding or tapioca work? I never liked that stuff anyway, that icky larvae textures. Ugh. Who are the disturbed chemists among us? Enquiring minds want to know.

Let’s say O’Neil and RT settle upon packaging from an Aibo, Sony’s expensive robot dog. The team packs the diabolical creation in the box. We apply fake labels, set it out on the stoop under the watchful eye of hidden, internet cameras, and it’s good to go.

And then… and then…

Nefarious package jackers arrive. The gluttonous, greedy gomers help themselves to the heavy box, knowing Aibo’s a $1700 toy. They wrestle it to their get-away van. Jostling activates John’s cameras and GPS. O’Neil and RT track the package to a suspected neighborhood crack house where they find two men and a woman on their butts, flattened against the walls, shrieking in terror.

Authorities commit the traumatized thieves to the hospital’s mental health ward for observation. USPS and Amazon report a 13% reduction in package theft. SleuthSayers head for the nearest bar.

Who’s in?

A Hysterical History of Horror

Terror on Church Street monkish mascot

We must avoid the consequences undergone by my friend Robbie. Robbie Pallard worked for Disney as a designer when Terror on Church Street opened a downtown Orlando attraction, a block-long haunted two-storey mansion on steroids. This house of horror’s ghoulish attics and cellars bulged with cruelty and crime. A ghostly graveyard covered the results from its mad scientist labs.

ToCS picked Robbie to design their sets, mostly scenes from infamous horror movies. He tapped me to build their web site and a couple of props.

Their choice of Robbie wasn’t accidental– his reputation preceded him. He was once commissioned to decorate and stage a vignette for an upcoming Halloween party at a fancy, upscale house.

Sometime after completion, a visitor comes to the door. Getting no response from the doorbell, the nosy nelly peeks through windows. Moments later, the hysterical busybody phones police, screaming.

SWAT bursts in. They encounter a gut-turning scene… a tortured body hanging from the staircase. Underneath, a chainsaw rests on plastic sheeting. Cops race to track down the owners; the owners race to track down Robbie. He explains, owners explain, disbelief ensues, hilarity does not. Cops go home. Busybody and news trucks go home disappointed no murder occurred.

The Demise of Terror

Terror on Church Street suffered a sad demise. Once the site of McCrory's Ten-Cent Store at 135 South Orange Avenue, the colorful and popular attraction provided employment for numerous students, vendors, and goths who could work in their natural habiliments without drawing personal criticism.

Terror on Church Street poster
Robbie Pallard in action
The attraction grew too popular for its own good. The building was a historical site, registered and protected by the local Historical Society. Unfortunately it sat on a very valuable square of land in one of America’s most popular cities. The shame that happened next made the nightly news.

In violation of the state’s Sunshine Law, the mayor and cronies met after hours in a closed door session. In an after-hours coup, they authorized demolition of the building. Wrecking ball cranes and bulldozers that had been standing by, were already moving into the city. Through the night, they flattened the building to rubble. By dawn, nothing was left of the building but shattered bricks. The Historical Society was furious a protected building had been destroyed in a nighttime fait accompli.

The mayor justified leveling the structure without due procedure by characterizing it as an immiment danger to the public, requiring immediate action. That morning, Code Enforcement was laughing, noting ToCS was one of the most inspected buildings downtown, regularly visited by building department officials and almost daily by fire inspectors.

The Historical Society wrung its hands; the destruction was complete. Within days, construction began on a $20-million tower. Political machinations constituted the real terror on Church Street.