Showing posts with label computers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label computers. Show all posts

29 April 2017

Over-Byters Anonymous


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the first in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)
Here's my salute to the wonderful families who put up with us crime-writers! 
I write mystery and suspense fiction.  Lately it's been taking over my life.

I blame this on my new laptop.  Sleek and slim, it accompanies me everywhere: in the car, at the kitchen table, in the loo.

Unfortunately, it has become too convenient.  I have become a victim of the Computer Black Hole of Time.  Take last week, for instance:

"Quick - the laptop! I have an idea and I don't want to lose it."

"Oh no, Mom!  Not the laptop!  Don't do it...don't turn it on...don't"
(Insert theme song from Twilight Zone here.)

Alas, poor Natalie.  She knows what is to come.  Like Jeff Goldblum in that remake of The Fly, I merge with my mini-computer.  We become one.  Conscious only of our own existence.  Oblivious to the sounds of life around us.  Consumed by the story that has to come out of us.

Somewhere, a voice cuts through the fog.

"Mom, I'm hungry."

Normally a staunch advocate of the five food groups, I forget all about artificial flavour, colour dye number 412 and hydrogenated everything.  Lost in the netherworld of word-processing, I utter the dead giveaway:

"There's some Twinkies in the cupboard."

Natalie shakes her head in despair.  "She's gone."

Tap tap tap.  Fingers on the keyboard have a rhythm all their own.  Mesmerizing.  Hours shrink to minutes.  Like a jigsaw puzzle half done, the shreds of my story are piecing themselves together.  If I can only...

"Dad's home, Mom."

"Just a sec."

"It's dinner time, Mom."

"I think there's some Oreo's in the cupboard."

Back to the keyboard.  The laptop is humming our tune.  Words glide across the screen in a seductive dance.  I'm caught in the feverish whirlpool of setting, viewpoint, characterization and climax.

An electric can-opener disturbs my train of thought.

"Earth to Mom.  Want some tuna?"

"Just a sec."

"Honey, are you all right?"

My husband's voice.  What is he doing home so early?

"We're eating now," he says.

"Have a Pop Tart," I blurt.

Natalie shakes her head.  "Give up, Dad."

I'm back to the screen, running with my story character...heart pounding, mind agonizing.  Will he get to the scene before the murderer?  Will he be in time to prevent it?

Somewhere in the house, water is running - pounding on porcelain like thunder.  Hey, that's it!  Add a blinding thunder storm, the hero running through sheets of rain, slipping on wet pavement, unable to read the house numbers....

I PG UP and start revising.

"Night, Mom."

"Night, Mommy"

"Murrmph?"  I don't look up.

Finished.  I save copy and turn off my partner in crime, the laptop.  Draft one, complete.  What a team.  Sitting for hours in one position, I am oddly invigorated.  Ready to run the Boston Marathon, and looking for company.

It's dark outside.  The house is quiet.  I thump upstairs, looking for everyone.

Even my husband is in bed.  I sit on the edge of the mattress, bewildered.

"Why is everyone in bed so early?"

My husband pokes his head up.  "It's 3 a.m."

"It is?"  Astonishing.  Once again, I have been a victim of the Computer Black Hole of Time: entire hours mysteriously devoured by the simple on-switch of a computer.  I contemplate starting a self-help group for chronic users:  Over-Byters Anonymous.  But I don't think I could deal with the separation anxiety.

"Wanna read my story?" I ask eagerly.

There are limits to the devotion of even the most supportive family.

It's 3 a.m.  He declines.

Added note:
Today is Authors for Indies day in Canada.  By Indies, we mean independent bookstores.  All across the True North, authors are appearing at independent bookstores to do signings, and show their appreciation.  I will be at Different Drummer bookstore in Burlington, Ontario, this afternoon.  Many thanks to all our independent bookstore owners!

Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup.  Her books and short stories have won 10 awards, even though they are probably certifiable, poor things.  Read at your own risk. www.melodiecampbell.com

05 February 2014

Call of the Wicked





by Robert Lopresti

I have a friend who has a mother, a wonderful lady we will call Kate.  She is a smart woman who, at a time when many people were retired,  was still doing biomedical research.  That  kind of smart.

But time has passed and she is retired now, and living in a senoir home, what is known as an independent living center.  And one day not too long ago she got a phone call from someone who said he was calling from Windows.  He explained that they had found that her computer was about to crash but he could fix it if she gave him control.

Well, you know what happened next.  She had to call someone from the office to yank the plug out of the wall to turn the computer off, and then she had to buy a new computer.  (According to the guy who looked at her machine, if you suffer this type of hack, the trick is to get someone to fix it before you log on again.  After that, its too late.)

I won't go through the misery that followed: closing bank accounts, changing passwords, destroying credit cards.  Because that is all minor inconvenience, as tedious and infuriating as it is.

The real damage was done inside Kate's head.  Falling for that trick damaged her self-confidence and self-image, because she knew she would not have done so a few years before.  And that is the true, soul-destroying evil accomplished by these morally-bankrupt thugs who deliberately aim their scams at seniors.

For some reason, this makes me think of Dick Francis.  One of the things I like best about his work is that his characters never lost their shock over bad guys doing bad things.  While the heroes of Chandler get cynical and  see the glass as not only mostly empty but slightly moldy, Francis's men stay outraged and furious.  That doesn't belong to you.  Put it back!

From time to time scholars have pondered why so many people are fascinated by crime fiction.  Part of the answer, I think, is that we all deal with villains and the mysteries give us a pain-free way to reflect on them.  And, in fiction, at least, we can sometimes defeat them.

Until next time, watch out for the bad guys.

18 August 2013

The Truth shall set thee free


by Leigh Lundin

For at least the past half century, clerks and bureaucrats offer consumers the excuse “It’s not our fault, the computer made a mistake.” As a computer specialist, I know that behind a mistake is another human and the proffered excuse is an attempt to mitigate or evade responsibility. It’s not that computers are infallible, but they do what people tell them to do.
Reflection
In a couple of small towns where I grew up, town gossips considered their mission to find out about everyone else’s business while hiding the skeletons in their own closets. One of the women complained her husband wouldn’t share the tidbits he picked up at the local grain elevator. He became my hero.

Some victims must have felt vindication when one of the worst dashed back and forth, spying upon her own daughter making out in her boyfriend’s car in front of her house, then running to the back bathroom, climbing up on the tub and peering out the rear window spying on another couple having at it. In her gusto, she slipped on the tub, fell and broke her arm. Her screams and the subsequent ambulance brought all pleasurable activities to a halt. The lessons I took away was that– private as I am– tight lips and an open bearing is a wise policy.

Thus, when it comes to government, I lean towards the-truth-and-damn-the-consequences policy, not in every instance, but the vast majority of the time. And this is what I’ve learned from the Snowden and Manning affairs: Our nation, our government survives pretty damn well when the truth comes out. Might these examples suggest the less secrecy the better? Or at least shouldn’t we open our eyes and engage in a discussion what secrets are wise and what aren’t?

Friday morning I was listening to CNN pontificate about the Edward Snowden affair. Their hostess pointed out that people either believe he’s a hero or a traitor. I’m not sure this reflects political leanings but the guest on the left took the position Snowden’s a betrayer whilst the guy on the right claimed Snowden’s a patriot. I never did hear anything of importance from the guest in the middle, but my mind may have tuned out following an amazing, jaw-dropping, mind-numbing statement: The NSA apologist (the guy on the left of the screen) said something to the effect we can’t so much blame NSA’s crimes on people, because these crimes are committed by computers.



Wh– what?

Going back to my opening paragraph, computers do what people tell them to do. In centuries past, defendants might have tried “Your Honour, t'were me fourteen vicious dogs wot ripped apart me wife’s paramour all on their own selves,” or “It were an accident pure and simple, Judge. Me horse reared up and clopped the landlord on ’is head.”

But blaming computers, it’s like saying:
  • “I didn’t cut them joists too short, my saw did.”
  • “Officer, I didn’t run the red light, my car did.”
  • “Judge, I didn’t shoot the guy, my Glock did.”
Fortunately, we crime writers seldom bring up the computer-ate-my-homework excuse, else without humans, we’d have little to write about. Imagine the detective’s dénouement: “Based on the prints, I determined the digits are digital and the bite marks are bytes. Yes, the culprit is the CDC-6600.”

10 June 2013

Smith's Law


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape
 
Bet you've never heard of Smith's Law. Well, don't fret. I'm sure you've heard of Murphy's Law? Well, my late husband, Elmer Grape used to claim that Murphy was an optimist. That whatever did go wrong was going to get worse.

So I had my internet tech out last week & got my desktop back online and then sorta got the laptop going also.  Well, it was working; it just takes thirty minutes plus to load. Since computers were working I delayed buying a new laptop. And today is when Murphy's Law kicked in. Things got worse.

This afternoon while trying to get my article written and posted, I cannot get online with either computer. The desktop is totally hopeless. I managed to get online with laptop but after 40 minutes of the cursor spinning it just would NOT open the sleuthsayer website.  So I'm writing this on my phone. Thank goodness I bought a styles thingy last week. I can't  imagine trying to type this much with a fingertip.

And so things won't be a total crying towel, pitiful Patty, I'll give you an idea of what my original article was about.  I've had people say that my policewoman sounds exactly like me. Or that this character or that character is Aunt Whosit or Uncle What's his name. In reality none of that is so. The characters I make up are just that "made up."

If Zoe Barrow sounds like me...it's probably because you give her a Texas accent because I'm from Texas.  Like most writers say, there's a little bit of me in several of my characters. But Zoe is younger, thinner, prettier and braver than me. (I got that one from Sue Grafton about comparing Kinsey to her.)

However, I take bits and pieces of people I know or see to compose a character. I've gone to a mall to people watch. To note gestures, walks, body language.   You may take a trait of Aunt Whosit and marry it with Cousin Whom.  When you do that you do need to be careful they don't recognize themselves. A friend once said she made her mother-in-law into a yippy dog but the MIL never caught it.

Characters are fun to create. But don't just give a list.of hair and eye color. Give us something to their makeup as a person. Thats when characters come to life.

I think this is about all I can type this way . So until next time watch out for Murphy.

22 May 2013

Breaking the Code


by David Edgerley Gates

If you asked my uncle Charlie what he did in the Second World War, you got some evasive boilerplate about working for Army Intelligence. He'd tell you that during the Bulge, say, his unit searched abandoned German command posts for compromising material, and sometimes it was touch and go, because the battle lines shifted back and forth, but he was generally close-mouthed about it, and made his service out to be pretty much routine duty. He did in fact have an old Third Army sleeve insignia, a pin with the white A on a blue field, circled in red, so there might have been some truth to that Battle of the Bulge story. If there was, it was a very small part of the truth, because he was actually in on one of the biggest secrets of the war.

It was called ENIGMA, and the product was code-named ULTRA.

Enigma machine
ENIGMA was an encipherment system, used by the German military and diplomatic services. Polish intelligence did the initial heavy lifting, reverse-engineering captured German equipment, and passed their results on to the Brits in 1939. British code-breakers set up shop at Bletchley Park, north of London, and began reading Luftwaffe and Army traffic.

To simplify enormously, the Enigma machine was a transposition cipher device with a typewriter keyboard. There were three rotors inside, each with twenty-six characters. When you struck a key, the first rotor advanced one position, until it reached twenty-six, and then the next rotor advanced, like an odometer. In other words, any given letter was substituted with another, but the possible combinations were twenty-six to the power of three. The rotor settings were predetermined, but they changed every day, in theory. One weakness Bletchley Park exploited was that the German operators didn't always change the settings daily. Another was that messages were sometime sent in plaintext, for redundancy, and you could compare the coded transmission to the uncoded one. If not for German security breaches, the coded traffic might well have proved unreadable.

Rotors
Then they hit a bottleneck. German naval security had always been more rigorous than that of the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht, and the Kriegsmarine introduced a machine with four rotors. The number of possible character substitutions multiplied, and the traffic went dark.

In the North Atlantic, the convoys that were Britain's lifeline had no effective air cover or escorts, in 1940 and '41, and crossed two thousand nautical miles of unpatrolled open ocean.  Here the wolfpacks hunted. The loss of Allied tonnage was crippling. Bletchley Park needed to break the U-boat codes or the resupply would founder.


Alan Turing
The guy who probably deserves the most credit was an eccentric mathematics done from Cambridge named Alan Turing, who'd been recruited by the Government Code and Cypher School even before the war began. Turing designed an analytical machine, a numb-cruncher, in effect one of the earliest computers, a bombe, so-called.  With it, they "unbuttoned," Turing's word, the German naval ciphers, and shortened the Battle of the Atlantic. It's no exaggeration to suggest they shortened the war.


Model of the Bombe
At its peak, Bletchley Park was reading 4,000 messages a day. The decrypts tipped the balance in every campaign from North Africa to D-Day. (They were never shared with the Russians, however. Churchill's mistrust ran deep.) The people who worked there didn't talk about it, then or later. They maintained their habit of silence, and the whole story didn't break until thirty years afterwards. It was a better-kept secret than the Manhattan Project.

Alan Turing died in 1954. He was queer, and MI-5 hounded him, as a security risk. He underwent chemical castration, and was eventually driven to suicide, his contribution to the war effort unrecognized at the time of his death. Some thirty years later, Hugh Whitemore's play "Breaking the Code" opened in the West End, with the astonishing Derek Jacobi as Turing. Sodomy hasn't been criminally prosecuted in Great Britain since the repeal of the gross indecency acts in the late '60's. A legislative motion was introduced in Parliament to grant Turing a statutory pardon, just this past year.

I don't want to wade into the question of gay civil rights, although it seems to me obvious that without legal protection, homosexuals are still fair game. Turing was blackmailed by the law. His reputation doesn't deserve just rehabilitation. This has already happened. The computer library at King's College, Cambridge, for example, is now named after him, and he's widely accepted as a pioneer in Artificial Intelligence (the Turing test), and secure speech, the Delilah program. I'm saying that he deserves a posthumous knighthood, or an Order of Chivalry, at the least. This odd, cranky-pantsed fairy did as much to beat Hitler as any divisions in the field.

Churchill was later to say: "ULTRA won the war."



Editor's note: Software developer Terry Long has created a free Enigma Simulator. If you happen to use a Macintosh, download it and try it out.

Enigma

04 February 2012

Computers? They're Not My "Type"



by Herschel Cozine


NOTE: This week I've invited my friend Herschel Cozine to do a guest column. Some of you are already familiar with his work; Herschel's short stories and poems have appeared in AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, Wolfmont Press's Toys for Tots anthologies, and many national children's magazines. He's also published a number of stories in Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full of Bullets, Untreed Reads, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E, and others. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award. Herschel lives with his wife in Santa Rosa, California, and often serves as my wise but unpaid advisor on literary matters. (Herschel, many thanks! Readers, I'll be back in two weeks.) -- John Floyd




I lived many years BC (Before Computers), and have issues that have yet to be resolved. And I am sure I am not alone; certainly my problem resonates with those in my age group.

Allow me to preface my remarks with an anecdote. I was born in an old Victorian house on Long Island, situated on 180 acres of mostly unimproved land. The house and grounds were owned by J. P. Grace, the multi-millionaire banker and businessman. Mr. Grace stipulated in his will that his estate could neither be sold nor subdivided, so it is still intact today. However, since his death many years ago, the grounds have been neglected by his heirs and have fallen into disrepair. The house and most of the buildings burned to the ground at various times over the years.

Recently I discovered that the local historical society had dispatched a team to map and explore the estate. They dug in the places where the structures had once stood, collecting and cataloguing the relics that they unearthed.

I wasn't prepared for this. How would you feel to discover that the house in which you were born was now an archeological dig site? Old. Very old.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I started writing before the age of computers (or digital clocks for that matter). The writers of the day used typewriters, carbon paper and onionskin paper for their file copies. For those of you too young to remember, carbon paper was not made from carbon, nor was the onionskin made from onions. And the typewriter was a clever device that one learned how to operate in high school. Basic. Easy to master. Uncomplicated. Like many inventions of that era (rumble seats, slide rules), it was too good to last.

The writers started by jotting their musings on foolscap, a legal pad, or whatever suited their needs. Then would come the simple, albeit arduous, task of typing it (using the aforementioned typewriter), onto a clean white sheet of stationery, together with a sheet of carbon paper and a sheet of onionskin. Naturally, mistakes were made. Thus the ever-present bottle of whiteout came to the rescue. A blob of that over the typo and the manuscript was good as new. Of course, the typo was forever preserved on the onionskin copy. But that was for one's file and not a big problem. Eventually the imaginative typewriter folks devised a ribbon that had a strip of whiteout incorporated in the ribbon. One simply positioned the platen so the offending typo was under the striker, typed the letter through the whiteout, and then replaced it with the proper letter. Life was beautiful!

Then the electric typewriter made its appearance. Prior to that the darkness of the letters varied with their position on the keyboard. For example, the letter "a" was usually fainter than a "g" or one of the inner letters because one struck the "a" key with his weaker finger. The electric typewriter took care of that problem as well as the one of capital letters that stood half a line above the rest of the word. Life was now even more beautiful.

Then came the typewriter with a memory. Up to ten lines of typing could be stored on the device so one could edit and correct before committing it to paper. Another ingenious work-saving innovation. It couldn't get any better than this.

Then--the computer! Life will never be the same.

My son had to convince me of the advantages of the computer over my clunky, outdated typewriter. Thus I was pulled into the twentieth century just before it in turn was pulled into the twenty-first. I still have the scars.

To begin with, my first computer informed me that I had performed an "illegal operation." I was appalled. I had never received so much as a parking ticket before. I pleaded with it to tell me what it was that I had done, promising never to do it again. But it just sat there, its cursor blinking at me accusingly.

I swore at it, threatened it. "I'm the intelligent one in this room. You are simply a collection of circuit boards and wires. If it weren't for me you would be languishing in some warehouse in Peking. Show some gratitude!"

No response except for the blinking cursor. To this day I don't know what I did wrong.

Thankfully, my present computer is not that judgmental. I no longer get that message.

But I digress. Since my main reason for getting a computer was to simplify and modernize my writing efforts, I removed my typewriter from the den and turned to the word program. Awesome!

I looked at the screen in bewilderment. The options, features, icons, and symbols boggled my mind. Before I could start writing I had choices to make. What font style: Courier, Gothic, Times New Roman, even fonts that printed in symbols resembling hieroglyphics. I settled on Times New Roman and moved on. Font size--from microscopic to billboard. Did I want bold, italics, underline? What color? Did I want headers or footers, indented paragraphs, right justified margins, single or double spacing? What size paper? How about columns? Graphs? Double spacing before or after paragraphs?

I was overwhelmed. I have a hard time deciding between "over easy" or "scrambled" when I eat out. "Panic" is a little too strong a word to define my mental state. But it will suffice for the purpose of this discussion.

By the time I had set up all the parameters I had forgotten what it was I had started out to write. I have reverted to jotting down the story on foolscap ahead of time. This is progress?

With some trepidation I began to write. Suddenly the font changed from Times New Roman to Lucida. What had I done? I later learned from my son that I had not set my defaults. (I thought that only happened to loans.)

I labored on, enduring the whims and peculiarities of the computer, finally reaching the end.

Having finished for the day, I was ready to save my work. This scenario followed:

Computer: Do you want to save this?

Me: I just went through three cups of coffee, two bathroom breaks, four and a half hours of typing, not to mention the ordeal you put me through. Of course I want to save it, you moron!

Computer: Where?

Me: Someplace where I can find it again. I am still looking for the last one which disappeared without a warning. I even called my computer-savvy son, who told me, "You must have hit the delete button," and then hung up. I suppose I would have done the same if I had been called out of an important meeting. But it seemed a bit rude. After all, I am his father.

Computer: What format? HTML, Doc, PDF, RTF, etc.

Me: UCLA, NASA, FBI, GOP. How the hell should I know? You're the expert. You decide.

I have no idea what format my document is in, nor do I care. All I ask is that it is where I stored it and that it is readable. (I recently opened a file to find nothing but rows and rows of symbols and punctuation marks that ran on for three pages.)

Needless to say, I am not a big fan of Bill Gates.

Of course, I understand that a computer is more than a glorified typewriter, and I should be taking advantage of its versatility. I try. I have 378 friends on Facebook, six of whom I have actually met. I am bombarded with crude jokes, tasteless photos, and messages concerning their bodily functions and sexual prowess. I don't spend a lot of time there.

Then, of course, there is e-mail. There was a time when I had to trudge out to the mailbox to get my junk mail. Now I have it delivered directly to my den. (I wonder if that poor man ever managed to get his money out of Nicaragua.)

Ah, but I am beginning to sound like my father. He was convinced that civilization as we know it would not survive the invention of television. Fate was kind to delay the invention of the computer until after he had passed away.

There is a group of men on Long Island who will unearth a rusted, scorched Underwood typewriter in the rubble of my old house. I wish I could be there when that happens. God, how I miss it!