Showing posts with label personal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label personal. Show all posts

21 September 2018

My Father Died Today

by Mary Fernando

My father died today and I am left here, with my keyboard and memories. 


My father was born in Ceylon in the 1930s, but he had no sense of the place or time he landed on this planet. He was always immersed in books -philosophy, the classics and his beloved biology- and he had little regard for the social norms that were simply invisible to him.

My father got his PhD in Biology at Oxford University, at Christ Church College, in the 1950s. When my son asked him about Oxford, my father - one of the few non-whites there - did not comment on the prestige of Oxford, or the lack of diversity. That was not my father’s style. He was unfailing honest, so he talked about what mattered to him: how, as a poor student, he was able to buy so many of his beloved books at second hand stores and how he had his first sexual relationship there. Yes. That is what he said. That sealed the deal for my son - he was going to university.

My father was born into a wealthy family, one of a long line of doctors and scientists. Growing up in Ceylon, a country with a rigid social stratification, he had a servant whom he chatted with and respected. My father took him on collecting trips and was amazed at his fine mind. We knew him only as ‘Dr. Johnson’ because that is what my father called him. Whenever we returned to Ceylon, Dr Johnson would accompany my father on his collecting trips and lectures.  It was not until I was older that I realized that Dr Johnson was not a professor and he was different than the famous scientists that I often met. Dr. Johnson had no qualifications - not even a high school diploma - and as an adult I found out that my father had given him some family land, helped him build a house and sent him money every month to allow him to educate his children and live a life of ideas. ‘Social justice’ wasn't in my father’s vocabulary - he just did what he felt was right. Whether he was sitting with Maasai in the plains of Africa, or world famous scientists in the halls of a university, he was the same - it was people that he loved and he remained blind to the differences that others saw.

He fell in love with my mother, and stayed in love with her for 62 years. In my mother he found someone as oblivious of norms as he was: she was an MD/PhD with a passion for Parasitology. My father - with his eyes on science -  missed the chauvinistic memos of the 1950s. In my mother he saw a mind that he thought was finer than his. He supported her through her career. He also felt he was a better cook, so he cooked for her all his life, leaving her free to do her work. He supported and fought for many women in science in his lifetime - it was their minds, not their sex, that he focused on and championed.



He took our family around the world, through Africa, South East Asia, the Americas and Europe. He felt at home wherever he was, as long as he could talk bugs and fish, eat good food and share stories and laughter.

Deeply moved by democracy and fairness, my father had no tolerance for political despots. I know this not from what he said but from what he did. He took our family - often at young ages - through dangerous countries in search of fish and bugs. He faced men with machine guns and machetes with equal calm. He had a job to do and we simply went with him. Nothing speaks of his boldness as well as when he was in Singapore, on his way to the Philippines. We were not with him but called to tell him that the Philippines was in the middle of a coup. He said: If I stopped my work for every coup, I would never get anything done. My father felt strongly that political despots, dictators, and even civil war, were transient. Science, that careful, meticulous work of men and women around the world, that is what would endure and he would do his small part to contribute. Looking back - he was right. The despots are now dead or overthrown. The work of the men and women of science has lived on.

My father’s sense of fairness, and his support of my mother, occasionally made his life miserable. We were traveling during his sabbatical year, were in Malaysia, and my mother asked my father to bring some samples from chickens when he visited Burma (now Myanmar). In my father’s mind, if you took anything you paid. So, he offered to pay to collect chicken feces - chicken shit -in an isolated village.  As he was depositing samples into carefully labeled bottles of formaldehyde, he looked up to see many villagers, all carry bags, some of them in various states of degeneration, all filled to the brim with various animal feces. The word must have gone around the village that there was an odd man paying for shit. My father could see how poor these people were and so he did what few people would do - he left with his biological van filled with shit and his wallet empty. He told us this story over a meal, coupled with laughter.

Oddly, for a man of science, one thing my father would never accept is the death of people he cared about. He refused to go to any funeral. Ever. He simply could not bear it.

My father taught me to eat a good meal with people I care about and find a good book to read - every day of my life. He taught me to find every person, in every country, as comfortable as home. He understood - ahead of his time - that the world is a very small place. He taught me that chauvinism and racism are to be ignored in the face of larger, more important pursuits.

Unlike my father, I do go to funerals and I will go to my father’s funeral - my second this year. Why? Because my father - literally - gave me the world.

13 November 2014

My Worst Case Of Writers Block

by Jim Winter

About four years ago, I got laid off from the job I held for fourteen years. I had severance, so this actually turned out to be good. After about four months, though, I'd started to lose interest in everything. Especially writing.

It had been a few years since my original publisher imploded, and my then agent failed to sell Road Rules, the Leonardesque road trip caper I'd written on a dare. I had no clue what to do next, and I didn't really care. I fired my agent and decided to just give up writing.

Fast forward about six months. New job doing what I'd trained for instead of being stuck doing only what my old employer wanted me to do. I started to get an interest in writing again, but what to write. A new Nick Kepler novel? A follow-up to Road Rules? A pre-9/11 thriller I'd been toying with? None of these really captured my interest. But I wanted to write.

Finally, I just sat down and wrote the autobiography of a rock musician character a friend and I used to kick around when we were in our late teens. The beginning was interesting, reminding me of one of those Stephen King novels that flash back to the characters' childhood days. The real challenge was writing the character in the late fifties and early sixties as a kid and giving him time in Vietnam. And then one weekend, with nothing scheduled or planned, I sat down to write about his adventures in late sixties London.

When I stopped on Sunday evening that weekend, I'd written 17,000 words. Not 17,000 words total in the manuscript. 17,000 words from Friday evening all the way to Sunday.

Very rarely does anyone write that much, and I wouldn't submit these pages for any publication. Besides, I borrow liberally several historical figures, some of whom are still alive.

Since that time, the book or mock autobiography or whatever you want to call it has served to give me time writing original work when I'm between projects. It also had an interesting side benefit. I soon was rereading the next novel I wanted to submit for publication (for which I now owe an agent revisions). I started writing almost constantly.

I've always heard that one should write through writers block. That's actually the easy part. The hard part is finding what to write.

24 September 2014

Lee Child's Personal

by David Edgerley Gates

PERSONAL is the nineteenth Jack Reacher book in the series, and Lee Child doesn't need my help to sell it. It opened at #1 on most national lists the first week it was out, and week two, it's still there.

This post isn't about promoting the book, which happens to be a knockout - Lee certainly hasn't lost his chops, and Jack keeps getting deeper as a character - but about P.O.V.



PERSONAL is told, appropriately, in first-person. This isn't a departure for the Reacher books, but more commonly, they've been told in the third. In other words, Jack is observedand doesn't share his confidences. This is true of thirteen books, so far. It's interesting to me why you'd decide to shift gears. Lee uses the first-person in KILLING FLOOR, PERSUADER, THE ENEMY, GONE TOMORROW, THE AFFAIR, and this book. Oh, you might think, work with the change-up pitch to keep yourself on your toes and avoid getting stale, or to keep your readers invested, over the course of a long and successful run of novels, but it seems to me there's a more calculated narrative choice involved.

Reacher's never been entirely generic - unlike, say, Travis McGee. John MacDonald, famously, never wanted to do a series character, but he got talked into it. McGee has his quirks, but he remains a flat character, until you get to THE GREEN RIPPER, and he steps outside of himself, the formula no longer able to contain him. The dynamic for Reacher, even at the beginning, allows for more expansion and contraction. Lee Child himself has said that he meant from the get-go to write books that would be accessible, and commercial, and that Reacher was a conscious construct, designed - not market-researched, but a means to an end.

He turns out to be more. This is something that happens, and not always by accident. There are other examples. We might start out to write one story, and then find it gets away from us, or a walk-on part suddenly takes center stage, and completely unexpected. But in Reacher's case, Lee Child might have intended a sort of empty vessel, a hero you could inhabit with your own devices and desires, and what he wound up with was somebody whose own devices and desires overtook the original template. 


Which brings us back to choosing a voice. In each of the books where Jack himself is speaking, he invites our confidence, and we become complicit. This is, I think, most true of THE ENEMY and THE AFFAIR, which take place in the past, when Jack is still active military. One of my favorite lines, in all of the books, is a throwaway, from THE ENEMY, a seemingly casual remark. Reacher's gone to Germany, and they're outside some big U.S. Army armor base, Baumholder or the like. In the early morning fog, they hear the tanks coming back from a live-fire exercise. The sound of tank treads on pavement, the sound of the 20th century, Reacher thinks to himself, the Wehrmachtthe Soviets putting down the Budapest revolt. One of the rare instances where Reacher is reflective. It's a very telling detail. Jack's not your average lifer.

Also, in THE ENEMY, we get to meet not just Jack's brother Joe, but their mom, with her own past history in the French resistance, something neither of the boys know about. Lee revisits this in PERSONAL. The real zinger in the book, for my money, isn't ninety pages in, with the Russian (no spoilers), but a hundred pages in, the scene afterwards, at Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Jack visits his mother's grave. This is the entire argument for using first-person. We hear Jack's thoughts. We see him revealed.

Vulnerability isn't the first word that comes to mind, with Reacher. Far from it. He's kind of a force of nature, a guy without visible weakness. Big, and certain. Nobody you want to mess with. People do, and live to regret it - or don't. Live, anyway. A hard guy, and unsentimental. A guy you believe in. A guy you want on your side.


I don't think, though, that you believe in Jack Reacher simply because he's an unstoppable force. I think what Lee Child has done, in the course of the books, is to pull off a real hat-trick. You get used to Reacher in some diner by the side of the highway, hoping he's going to get a decent cup of java, or head-butting some asshole cop who gets in his face, just being Jack. What takes you off-guard is the occasional, and sudden, moment of clarity. He assesses the background, his immediate environment, the threat potential, how not? What makes Jack different, what gives him depth, isn't that he examines himself. He doesn't. But he knows who he is.

You could say this is one in a long line. Spade, or Marlowe, Lew Archer. Spenser, and Travis McGee. Kinsey Milhone, for that matter. Lone wolves, who stake out their turf, and make it their own. I beg to differ. Reacher is somehow on another plane. I don't know how to explain it to myself. Not even Bob Lee Swagger - and I bow to none in my admiration for Steve Hunter - but Lee's done something else. He's reinvented the character, he owns Jack Reacher. he speaks with his voice.

We identify with our characters. I do with mine. Lee seems to have actually inhabited Jack. This is a gift, or a kind of magic. I think it's astonishing. We don't all manage it. Not even. Lee got a gift. It wasn't handed to him, by any means, but we take it when the tray is passed.



04 August 2013

PINs and Passwords, Part 1

by Leigh Lundin

Needles…

More often than you might imagine, financial institutions deploy inadequate security protection, the type of inadequacy where the word ‘woefully’ often finds itself used. I don’t know how much Discover has beefed up its on-line security since I last owned a card, but its password protection was weaker than some porn sites (so I’m told, ahem). It took Capital One and Washington Mutual a while to come up to speed, but my present bank still allows only a ten character password.

If a bank left the keys in their door at night or even left it unlocked, you could hardly blame the curious– or the wicked– for coming inside and wandering around. But that’s happened in the on-line financial world. Institutions lobby for harsh penalties, but their rantings and ravings are meant to detract attention from their own failings.

But a third party is involved, you, the customer. What do you have in your wallet?

From the aspect of a consumer, we can use the following to protect ourselves. From the standpoint of crime writers, we can use the information below to plot clues within a story.

… and PINs

Think about your PIN number, ‘PIN’ singular because most people use one for everything, even their security alarm code. And past behavior suggests people will continue using an easily exposed code even after reading an article like this.

But wait. Doesn't a 4-digit PIN imply guessing one is only a 1-in-10,000 chance?

Not at all. Knowing a little about you (Social Security Number, birth date, etc.) might help hackers, but the PINs and alarm codes of one in four customers can be reduced to sixteen or so numbers.

Does yours begin with 1? Or 19?

The vast majority of PIN numbers begin with 1 or 0. If yours starts with 1, you’ve reduced the possibilities from 10,000 to 1000. If 19, your herd's shrunk to 100.

Do you use the internationally ubiquitous top N° 1 PIN? 1234? Or another of the popular sequential variants, 4321, 5678, 6789?

Does your number begin with 19xx, perhaps a date? The possible numbers are now one hundred, probably a lot less, maybe twenty possibilities if you’re young and eighty possibilities if you aren’t, but a few more if the number represents month-and-day (MMDD) or day-and-month (DDMM). Popular dates that go beyond birthdays include George Orwell's literary 1984 and historical years 1492 and 1776.

Take 2486, which has two strikes against it: It not only comprises semi-sequential even numbers, but it's also a visual pattern, a diamond on a keypad. Other popular visuals are a square (1397), a cross (2046), an X (1937), and the most popular of all, a straight line down the middle (2580). Visual patterns produce deceptively random-looking numbers, but statistics demonstrate they offer little security. And let's face it: Security and convenience find themselves at odds with each other.

'heat' map

statistical moiré
PIN-stripes

Using graphing tools and such visuals as 'heat maps', researchers can determine less than obvious patterns. Some stand out like stars in the sky while others exhibit a warp and woof of woven fabric revealing unconscious human subtleties we're unaware of.

People love couplets, paired digits such as 1010, 1212, the ever-popular 6969, Intel’s 8080, or that Zager and Evans song, 2525. Even when not using 9898 or 2323, people exhibit a preference for pairs one numeric step apart such as 2389 (2-3,8-9) or 5478 (5-4,7-8)) instead of 2479 or 5668. Perhaps we still hear childhood chants in our head from when we learned to count.

A few users exhibit a distinct lack of imagination, to wit: 0001. Others look to pop culture for inspiration, especially fans of James Bond (0007 or 0070), Star Trek (1701), or George Lucas (1138). The 1980s hit 867-5309 peaked at #4 on both the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the hottest 7-digit PIN list.

Some people can’t be bothered at all: 0000, 1111, 2222, 9999, etc. These same overall patterns persist with PINs longer than four digits although people tend to pick phone numbers when forced to select 7-digits, thus adding artificial randomization to the mix.

The problem with guessable PINs surprisingly worsens when customers are forced to use additional digits, moving from about a 25% probability with fifteen numbers to more than 30% (not counting 7-digits with all those phone numbers). In fact, about half of all 9-digit PINs can be reduced to two dozen possibilities, largely because more than 35% of all people use the all too tempting 123456789. As for the remaining 64%, there's a good chance they're using their Social Security Number, which makes them vulnerable. (And as we know, Social Security Numbers contain their own well-known patterns.)

To reemphasize, the greater the number of digits required, the more predictable selections become. Why? Why does the problem worsen with additional digits? As people are forced to use more digits, I hypothesize they react by falling back on easy-to-recall patterns such as sequences. Someone might remember 3791, but they won't easily recall 379114928, and they may reason 123456789 is as difficult as any other number.

PIN-pricks

The bad guys know these things. They don’t need high-speed analysis engines or intensive code-cracking software. They know the numbers and work the odds. As often as not, they can hack into an account– or your house or your medical files or your life– within moments.

Armed with only four possibilities, hackers can crack 20% of all PINs. Allow them no more than fifteen numbers, and they can tap the accounts of more than a quarter of card-holders.
PIN-ups
If you absolutely cannot remember little used numbers and carry a reminder, at least code the number in some way.
• Some take a cue from old-fashioned costing codes that used alphabet substitution for digits: I=1, J=2, K=3, …
• Roman numerals might be another idea, e.g, 2009=MMIX.
• One handy method is to subtract your PIN from 9999 and write that down. When you need your PIN, you simply subtract the code from 9999 again. (For those who know hexadecimal (base 16: 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-A-B-C-D-E-F), this geeky technique is even more effective: Where F is 15, subtract your PIN from FFFF, e.g, 9531=6ACE. I used this method to label keys in an apartment complex: 1422B=EBDD4.)

Your job– you should choose to accept it– is to make breaking into your account as difficult as possible, not that institutions tell you what you really need to know: Their usual advice is to cover ATM and store keypads with your hand. Don’t tell anyone your PIN. Don’t write it on a stick-em and carry it in your billfold.

But you can do a lot more than that: Make your number as difficult to guess as possible.

PIN-wheel

So what numbers are rarely used? Generally, the higher the first digit, the less common the password. Of the ten least used PINs, four start with 8, two with 9, and two with 6. Just don’t blow your efforts with 8888 or 8000, or 9999 or 9000.

Tip: Sure, you want a number you can remember. Toward that end, I suggest picking an easy four letter word (or a word with the same number of letters as the number of PIN digits) you can remember, say ‘easy’ itself. Look at E-A-S-Y on a telephone keypad and you’ll see the letters correspond to 3279, which breaks the most obvious patterns. Reverse the digits if you like to make the combination harder. If your ATM doesn't show letters, then open your cell phone. See more tips in the box at right.

PIN-points

In the following table* of the twenty most used numbers, it becomes painfully obvious any baddie who’s learned only the first four or five most popular numbers can suck the money out of one in five ATM accounts. With a crib sheet of these twenty numbers, he can boost his takings to 27%.

Most Common PIN Numbers
rank PIN freq %
1 1234 10.713
2 1111 6.016
3 0000 1.881
4 1212 1.197
5 7777 0.745
6 1004 0.616
7 2000 0.613
8 4444 0.526
9 2222 0.516
10 6969 0.512
11 9999 0.451
12 3333 0.419
13 5555 0.395
14 6666 0.391
15 1122 0.366
16 1313 0.304
17 8888 0.303
18 4321 0.293
19 2001 0.290
20 1010 0.285

Least Common PIN Numbers
rank PIN freq %
9981 9047 0.001161
9982 8438 0.001161
9983 0439 0.001161
9984 9539 0.001161
9985 8196 0.001131
9986 7063 0.001131
9987 6093 0.001131
9988 6827 0.001101
9989 7394 0.001101
9990 0859 0.001072
9991 8957 0.001042
9992 9480 0.001042
9993 6793 0.001012
9994 8398 0.000982
9995 0738 0.000982
9996 7637 0.000953
9997 6835 0.000953
9998 9629 0.000953
9999 8093 0.000893
10000 8068 0.000744
* Credit for this table and the heat maps goes to math mensch and privacy professional, Nick Berry.

PIN-out

Now go forth and protect thy accounts. And drop me a line if you use these clues in your own stories.