Category Archives: Writing

The Harrowing Hi-jinks of Hackerteen

hackerteen
I was in the library the other day, checking out the comics section, when I noticed a book with an O’Reilly logo on the cover. This would be nothing new if it was “Linux in a Nutshell” or “PHP Cookbook”, but this was a rather Manga-looking book with “Hackerteen Volume 1: Internet Blackout” emblazoned on the cover. It appeared that O’Reilly was looking to raise the next generation of IT Security Professionals. Intrigued, I checked it out and brought it home.

The comic follows the story of an 11 year-old shut-in named Yago. His parents become suspicious about all the time he spends on the computer, so they enroll him in Hackerteen, a school where kids of all ages can use their interest in computers constructively to become “El33t Hacker3z”. 6 years later, Yago is now a real hacker…teen, and he has the orange goggles, racing gloves and spikey mullet to prove it. Unfortunately, word of his prowess has reached the criminal element, and they constantly hound him for his services. He manages to rebuff them until he finds out his father’s bakery is in financial need. He takes a job to install a program to trace some rich fellow’s wife’s computer. However, the real purpose of the program is to hijack the rich fellow’s daughter’s webcam (which was placed conveniently in her bedroom) and use pictures of her undressing to blackmail her for thousands of dollars. Yago has to use his technical expertise to help the poor girl out before she becomes an unintentional internet camwhore.

I must say that the writers of Hackerteen certainly know their stuff. They know that hacking is not just the province of breaking into the pentagon and other sexy stuff. It’s mainly about abusing the trust of humans and their machines to get what you want out of them. The book has more than a few web addresses leading to web pages that go into detail about the issues that the characters face.

Unfortunately, that’s where this book’s good qualities end for me. First of all, it’s very hard to get past the art style in reading this book. The characters look like crude copies out of a Christopher Hart “How to Draw Manga” book. Facial features float all over the place, and rules of perspective are often treated more like guidelines. The story also hard to follow. Subplot after subplot is just being sandwiched in there, involving so many characters that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Yago has about 5 people on his team, and I don’t even think their names are mention. The characters themselves are pretty one dimensional, borrowing from anime stereotypes conjured up in Yu-gi-oh! or Pokemon.

Now it may seem unfair that I’m picking on an educational comic like this. The good people who wrote Hackerteen are simply trying to shed light on the complex issues that drive our world. But if computer security is so important, should we have to put up with sub-par art and lazy story-telling to learn about it?

Win Money Blogging $$$

As some of you regular readers may know, the regular problem with this blog is that there are not enough updates. This is the very reason I have few regular readers. I have also noticed this is a common problem on other blogs. So, inspired by a certain Seinfeld episode, I would like to propose:

The Last Blogger Standing Challenge!!!

The rules are fairly simple:

*Each contestant writes a blog post of at least 100 words once every 24 hours.

*If a contestant goes 24 hours without writing 100 words on their blog, they pay $20 and are disqualified.

*The last remaining contestant gets to keep the pot.

Basically, if 5 people buy in to this, the prize could potentially be $100. All money shall be exchanged through paypal. If you’re interested, place a comment, or e-mail me.

Top 20 WordPress Plug-ins

Since the Wordcamp last week I’ve been hard at work trying to trick out my blog for the internet at large. This involved locating and installing a lot of plug-ins. I’ve decided to save everyone else some time and post 20 of the most useful plug-ins I’ve found on the net.

Adsense-Deluxe – helps distribute google ads around my blog. It’s part of my quixotic quest to make this thing turn a profit.

Akismet – It’s no surprise this plug-in becomes bundled with wordpress now. If it weren’t for this one the comments section would be drowning in cialis ads.

All in One SEO pack – allows you to give your posts relevant search engine terms so google will pick it up.

Brian’s Threaded Comments – allows users to reply directly to other users’ posts.

Digg This – If anyone ever decides to submit one of my posts to the social news site Digg.com (hint, hint) this plug-in will alert my blog and stick a Digg button up at the top there.


Extended Comment Options
– Another weapon in the war on comment spam. This plug-in allows you to control comment access over all of your posts.

Feedburner Feedsmith – If you want to switch over to using Feedburner, this is the plug-in to get. It forwards subscribers of your old RSS feed to your new and shiny Feedburner RSS feed.

Google Analytics for WordPress – It’s kind of tough to use Google Analytics on WordPress because all the pages are dynamically generated. This plug-in puts the Analytics code on all the necessary parts of your page.


Google XML Sitemaps
– Google keeps track of websites using XML sitemaps. With this plug-in, you can generate a Sitemap and regenerate it when your page updates, making it more visible to Google.

Livejournal Crossposter – If you have friends on livejournal, then this plug-in will scrape your post and put it on your livejournal account.

PHPlist – Integrates with the PHPlist application to create a mailing list for your blog.

Show Top Commentators – Gives bragging writes to the users who comment the most on your blog.

Simple Tags – While not quite as simple as the name suggests, it allows you to mass edit the tags on your posts.


Socialize
– This will allow you to try out the Digg This plug-in. At the bottom of the post there are a number of buttons so that anyone can submit an article to Digg, Stumbleupon, Del.icio.us, or any other social news site.

Subscribe to Comments – Users can catch up on responses to their posts with this handy plug-in.

Twitter Tools – Using this, you can put new post notifications on Twitter or write Twitter posts from wordpress.

Twitter Widget – Puts that twitter feed right on the sidebar.

Widgetize Anything – Not every WordPress plug-in is optimized for sidebar widgets. This plug-in hopes to change that.

WordPress.com Stats – Puts usage statistics on the dashboard of your blog.

WordPress Database Backup – Nothing protects you from catastrophic failure like the occasional database backup. This plug-in does it quickly and easily.

Adults Who Are Young

I’ve been checking out the Young Adult genre for the past little while now. Harry Potter and his ilk have completely changed the publishing industry and apparently “saved reading”, so I wanted to find out what the fuss was all about. Harry Potter was okay, but not without certain nitpicking flaws. James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series was so inexcusably bad that I couldn’t make it through the first few chapters. Sara introduced me to another series by Rick Riordan called Percy Jackson and the Olympians and surprisingly, I couldn’t put it down.

It’s the story of Percy Jackson, a dyslexic, ADHD twelve-year-old boy who one day finds out that his long lost biological father is none other than Poseidon, Greek god of the sea and earthquakes. After a desperate escape to a demi-god summer camp in upstate New York, Percy is assigned a quest to retrieve the Thunderbolt of Zeus from the Underworld, which is now in LA (Mount Olympus is respectively now on the six hundredth floor of the Empire State building. It’s a long story, read the book already). It was heavy on action and self-referential humour, but it was complex enough to get me to read all three books in the space of a week.

Now, as I was going through all of these books for “young” adults, I realized I had gone sour on most adult books of the same genre. Truth be told, most of my friends had as well. The Author of Old Man’s War, Jon Scalzi wrote a really neat post on what is happening to the industry. Without mentioning titles, YA Science Fiction titles are outselling adult titles two to one. YA Fantasy outside of Harry Potter is outselling adult Fantasy by four to one.

So, Young Adult authors are moving books like gangbusters, and we can reasonably assume that an increasing portion of that readership is made up of adults (including yours truly). The question is why? It’s not because the books are shorter either. The Harry Potter series topped out at 900 pages. There hasn’t been a Percy Jackson book under 200 pages. The answer then, is hidden in the adult books.

I’ve also been doing a long, painful parallel study into adult science fiction novels, particularly David Brin’s Uplift War, Verner Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky and Greg Bear’s Forge of God. In all three books I found ideas that would blow your mind. A Galactic culture based on cultivating animals into sentient races, 1000-year-old computer programming traditions, and roving fleets of self-replicating killer robots. The problem is that the books are an utter pain in the ass to read.

In all three of these books, the authors seemed more concerned about getting the science and social concepts right rather than concentrating on writing an entertaining novel. The ideas in these books are great food for thought. You could debate for hours on how the societies and technologies in these books actually work. Unfortunately the characters are either unlikable or unremarkable, the language is obtuse and the conflicts are unsatisfying. In Uplift War, everyone except the sentient chimpanzees speak the same “alien” dialect that’s devoid of any slang or color. If you’ve heard Mr. Spock open his mouth at any time you know what I’m talking about. The Qeng Ho space traders in A Deepness in Sky were so insipid that by the time they had defeated the Fascist Emergents, I just didn’t care any more. I feel really bad about Forge of God, because I loved Greg Bear’s Blood Music. But in this book, so many of the characters are just stalwart experts and scientists. I can’t properly tell the astronomer advising the president from the geologist held in quarantine at the Airforce base. The President in this book decided to lay down arms in front of the impending alien invasion, but the description of his thought process was so mushy that I wasn’t aware of the decision for about two chapters.

It’s important to note that all three of these books are Hugo award winners, the top honor among literary science fiction. Some fans out there may scoff my claims, that these books are too advanced for my primitive brain to handle. However, all of these books are guilty of the sins described in George “1984” Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”.

In the essay, Orwell writes that difficult prose with too many long words, jargon and adverbs is not only difficult to read, it might as well destroy western civilization. By making political speeches and decrees unclear and lacking of any strong imagery, you can justify any monstrous action you can imagine. Take George W. Bush’s definition of “freedom”, for instance. The same rules apply to fiction, only we don’t use it to pick leaders, we just don’t want to get bored at the bus stop. It’s impossible to enjoy yourself when you’re puzzling over what “circumlocution” means.

It wasn’t Harry Potter who saved reading. That series was only a conduit, a lightning rod for a public that was tired of bloated prose, threadbare imagery and indulging author’s neuroses. We should keep in mind that it’s enough just to keep it simple, stupid. The very best of the genre will walk the edge of pandering and indulgence. Most Adult SF and Fantasy are on the indulgence end of the equation. If the genre is to survive, then this time a little bit of pander is in order.

Revenge of the Year in Review: Writing

What’s this you say? Wasn’t James done solemnly eulogizing last year? Aren’t all the Year In Reviews supposed to be done by now? What’s going on? Where am I?! You are in front of your computer reading my latest attempt at improving my writing. Yes, I know, I get a lot of compliments on my writing from those readers who are not search robots (unless ads for phentermine and online casinos are a form of compliment), but wouldn’t it be nice if my pithy observations were made more often? How do I know if I have any skills to improve if I don’t use them? Long story short, I tried to write novel last year. I started in May and gave myself until December 31st to finish the first draft. Unfortunately, since I am not mailing copies to myself and prospecting literary agents right now, something has to be done about my rate of output. We live in an ultra-industrialized society based on results, so if I’m not pumping out pages every day, I have no right to call myself a writer. Since I have more time now to write, I’ve decided that if I increase my overall writing output, a 10 page a day sort of regimen might not be so daunting. So in the interest of volume, I’d just like to talk about a couple of things I’ve learned last year about writing.

The Online Market:

There was a time when pulp and glossy magazines were so prolific that a semi-competent writer could make a living long enough to find his or her voice and build some semblance of a career. With all of these other media options out there it seems like those days are gone forever. I did a little research, and it appears that this isn’t the case. Writers today are now making money from the advertisements on weblogs. I had thought that this sort of business model had been quashed earlier in the decade, but with the advancements made in applications like Google adsense, the effectiveness of online advertisements is much better managed. Businesses can essentially pay by the eyeball for visitors to their websites. Professional blogger sites like problogger.net and copyblogger.com have extensive articles on how to make money in weblogs. The advice essentially boils down to a few choice steps

1. Choose a niche. This can be a specific interest that provides enough research for at least one article a week. The target audience for this niche interest must also be computer savvy in order to grace your site with traffic. You can also generate interest by aggregating information from many different sources with a common theme.

2. Generate enough posts consistently to generate traffic. Googlebots love it when your site updates regularly

3. Contact advertisers with a media kit describing your site. Sure, you could make some money using contextual ads, but if you actually have that personal rapport with your readers, you should be able to provide them with ads they can actually use. This will also provide your advertisers with consumers they can use.

And voila, you have your new revenue stream. Blogs like Gizmodo.com, consumerist.com and lifehacker.com are great examples of blogs that make money. As you may have noticed, james-strocel.com is not in the format of a money-making blog. The interests are too broad, and let’s face it, it doesn’t update enough. Hopefully within the next year I can come up with a blogging concept that’ll result in some groceries.

Novels: Screenplays are for suckers

Even before the writer’s strike, there was tons of literature by former television and movie writers that both media were becoming creatively bankrupt. The shows were being bankrolled to enhance the names of executives rather than to make any real profit. Works of art simply can’t be designed like cars or mp3 players. The ones that worked the best are very personal and specific in nature, so to make a movie all things to all people is an exercise in futility. So why not go it alone? Keeping ownership of your idea is not only good for future income, it preserves the idea’s potential income. When you buy a movie ticket or turn on the TV, you’re looking to experience a personal connection with whoever made the show. Film, television and print are after all only means of communication, they are not products in and of themselves. You only need to look as far as J.K. Rowling to see that we live in the era of the billionaire novelist. The potential gains of the novel far outweigh that of a screenplay that may never see the light of day anyway.