List of Tech Posts

5 Software Development Skills That Make Me A Better Writer

It’s no secret that I don’t earn much money from book sales. The bulk of my income comes from my day job: I’m a software developer for a big Canadian health care organization. If you’ve been in a hospital in British Columbia in the past eight years or so, there’s a good chance your doctor used the app I work on.

I don’t talk about my software job much, mainly because it’s not that interesting from the outside looking in. Still, I’m glad to be doing it. It’s challenging without being overly stressful, the people I work with are great, the pay is good by almost any standard, and it leaves me with just enough free time to bash out a book every year.

The importance of a good day job was recently highlighted by Robert Jackson Bennett, a talented, award-winning author who also works a nine-to-five. In particular, Robert suggests you need a steady day job while you’re building your backlist. I agree — in fact, I’ll go one step further and say a good day job might even teach you how to be a better writer.

Looking back on Winterwakers, I notice that a lot of the things I did right involved skills I acquired from the software biz. I’ve compiled (nerd pun intended) the most important ones here. Some are quite obvious, but some may surprise you. Continue Reading

Lenovo vs. Mrs. Perkins

Three weeks ago, my mom told me she needed a new laptop, and wanted some recommendations. I pointed her toward a Lenovo with a 15 inch touch screen, a model I considered to be a great bang-for-buck high-end laptop that met her specific needs (she’s visually impaired, so the large touch screen is a must-have).

This weekend, I had to take a break from editing Winterwakers Part 3 so I could spend some quality time with said laptop, repairing one of the worst security holes in the history of computing.

The whole situation really drove something home for me: when it comes to computing, there are two worlds. I live in one of them, and my mom (and most people) live in the other. In my world, computers are an open canvas, one that is frequently shat upon by companies like Lenovo. In my mom’s world — the world of the “normal” computer user — computers are mysterious black boxes that work most of the time, but occasionally act malevolently for no apparent reason.

I learned about Superfish on Thursday morning because I follow the right people on Twitter, and understand what they’re talking about. My mom learned about it because I sent her an email titled “Lenovo severe security/adware issue,” in which I volunteered to fix it for her because I knew it was beyond her capabilities.

Let me be perfectly clear on that point: my mom would have never even known about Superfish, or how serious a problem it was, if it weren’t for me personally warning her.

What if my mom had bought a Lenovo laptop without telling me? What if I was on a trek through the wilderness this week, missing the whole Superfish story? More to the point: what if my mom was one of the millions of normal-world Lenovo users who didn’t have someone in the tech world to tell her about Superfish, and impress upon her how serious an issue it is?

Continue Reading

The Software Security Iceberg

6a00d8341c562c53ef01347fcf13ae970cOver on Reddit, there’s a pretty fun sub called explainlikeIAmA (Reddit-speak for “Explain Like I am a …”). The premise is simple: people post a request in the form “Explain [topic] like you are [person]”, and other people reply accordingly. It’s basically a game of make-believe, and it’s a fun exercise for fiction writers.

Today, I replied to one such post titled “Explain the Sony hack like you, and not North Korea, were the one responsible, and you are trying to not-so-subtly hint at what you did.” Clever premise, and highly topical. Here’s my response:

Hypothetically, if a hacker wanted to avoid detection, he’d use an opportunity to deflect the blame to a plausible scapegoat. Perhaps this hacker, whoever he is, saw a golden opportunity in the impending release of The Interview.

North Korea is already known for its cyber-warfare program, and it’s no surprise they objected to The Interview. If someone wanted to hack Sony — perhaps for personal reasons that we may never learn — it wouldn’t be too difficult for said hacker to leave clues that point back to the DPRK: clues that are obvious enough for the FBI to pick up on, but not so obvious that they look suspiciously fake. Someone familiar with Sony’s network security should be able to accomplish this quite easily.

When the news came out that North Korea’s government was the prime suspect in the hack, Pyongyang’s response was predictable. Obviously they know they weren’t the hackers, but why would they deny such a perfect opportunity to claim credit for a massively successful cyber-attack? What better way to show the world they’re not a joke, and that they must be taken seriously as a threat to global security?

The media jumps on the story. North Korea is a known belligerent on the world stage, and the explanation that they’re behind the hack is not only plausible, it’s ideal. Meanwhile, the real hacker can relax, knowing he will never be caught.

OBVIOUS DISCLAIMER FOR MORONS: the above is a work of fiction/speculation. I am not the Sony hacker, nor do I claim to know anything about the identity, strategy, or methods of said hacker(s).

That said, nothing I wrote in that Reddit reply is implausible. If I had sysadmin-level access to Sony, I could have probably pulled off everything I said up there. A person with more expertise in computer networks than me, or someone with inside knowledge of Sony’s systems, would definitely be able to pull it off. Computer software is full of horrible flaws because it’s made by humans — and humans are jam-packed with horrible flaws. Continue Reading

Every Writer Deserves a Mechanical Keyboard

keyboard_cmstorm2 One of the great things about writing, when compared to other artistic pursuits, is that it doesn’t cost much. As I said a while back, anyone with a half decent computer has everything they need to write a book. Compare that to the cost of working in the visual arts, music, or film, and writing looks like a pretty sweet deal. (I should know–I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of money on music equipment over the years.)

However, in my experience, there are definitely two things a writer can buy to make writing easier and just … nicer. One is an outstanding software product called Scrivener. There are plenty of blogs out there already singing its praises, so I’ll just say that it’s wonderful, and that I’ll never, ever, ever go back to writing in That Blue Application Which Shall Not Be Named. Today, I’ll focus on the other great writing tool I’ve bought: my CM Storm Quickfire TK mechanical keyboard. It’s wonderful, and I’ll never, ever, ever go back to typing on cheap, squishy keys.

Okay, I’ll bite, Matt: What’s a mechanical keyboard?

The simple explanation: it’s a fancy keyboard for people who type a lot, or people who demand a high degree of accuracy from a keyboard. Writers fit both those categories, especially the typing a lot one.

You can also think of it this way: it’s a high-end keyboard for people who aren’t satisfied with the mushy feel, imprecise action, and slow speed of your typical came-with-the-computer slab. Said people might even remember when keyboards were somehow intangibly better, and yearn for those days. Those people aren’t just crotchety old nutjobs–they’re actually on to something. (Seriously though, you should probably get off their lawns before they throw their canes at you.)

You see, many years ago, every computer keyboard was mechanical. They were much more durable, and noticeably more pleasant to type on. Today’s keyboards are–and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest here–utter garbage in comparison. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the keyboard is the only piece of computer hardware that has gotten demonstrably worse since it was invented. Continue Reading