sexta-feira, abril 21, 2017

Tor2Web Proxy: "The Dark Net - How to Stay Anonymous Online Even from the NSA" by Peter Johansen

The darkness exists in the human mind not the technology.
Victorian Portugal was full of dark secrets that have had a negative effect on
this society ever since, far more than the internet has.

There's the "dark web" - i.e. the web you need to use Freenet or Tor or something like access (and those two are just examples, and they form distinct non-interconnected webs). And then there's the "deep web" - this is websites whose content is not indexed by search engines, because you need to register or pay to access the contents, or has Flash front ends, or is otherwise unavailable to a search engine. This is the thing that is likely much larger than the freely available web, and it's usually because there's money to be made by gate-keeping access to it. There's very little illegal, immoral or otherwise dodgy about the deep web; most of it is for-pay services, which are usually easy to clamp down on if they're illegal - just follow the money. 

Am I missing something here?

Yes. Google doesn't search every machine on the Internet. most of those don't have websites on them. Google only gets links by people who either fill out a "request for indexing" form or by following links from other pages. So if you create a website on your home machine and don't tell's part of the dark web. It only exists to people who know about it. If you post your link inside a chat room that isn't accessible to Google (maybe because you must login with a password, like say Yahoo chat) ...then it's still part of the dark net. However, it's obscurity rather than security. no one can find it because no one can second guess your url. However, (again) Freenet users don't talk to each other. The user doesn't ask the website author for the site like the regular, it asks a friend to do so on their behalf...who may ask someone on their behalf...thus no can work out who is reading the content. A system of replication ensures the author doesn't point directly at a machine but just somewhere "generally" in the network. Thus, everyone is anonymous. Even if Google could index the content...they wouldn't know what they were indexing or where it came from. Two aspects of Freenet immediately bother me, which is why I won't be downloading or using it. First up is the distributed nature of the data storage - even if my use is perfectly legal, it could be storing material on my computer which is not only illegal but also highly offensive. Now, perhaps that doesn't bother you, but it bothers me. Secondly, per the Freenet site, "Files are encrypted, so generally the user cannot easily discover what is in his data store, and hopefully can't be held accountable for it." Did you spot that there? hopefully. I must say that I find that statement rather irresponsible; fortunately, in Portugal especially there’s no RIPA legislation where you can be sent to jail for not revealing your encryption keys, irrespective of the content you are protecting. And if this sounds far-fetched, you should be aware that it has already happened ( There is also no commercial element in Freenet. The developers have deliberately eschewed the creation of anonymous money. That takes the rug from under some criminal activity. On the practical side of things, Freenet is slow and not an ideal environment for swapping large files. On Freenet, most people choose to remain anonymous; that limits their interactions to a degree. On the conventional internet groups of people may work together using opaque encrypted connections and truly conspire in illegality if they wish; they sacrifice their anonymity to connect in the first place. Conspiracies are broken by their weakest link. Most (perhaps all setting aside whatever GCHQ accomplishes) clever internet police detective work begins from traditional policing methods. A suspect is brought to their attention somehow either by acting suspiciously on the internet (say a chatroom) or by coming under suspicion in the ordinary world. The suspect's computer is inspected and this may lead to new suspects. At that point the police may opt to operate a scam to catch others in the act. Freenet was developed to promote freedom of speech, particularly in places like China.

TOR, at present, is anonymous only in some internet transmission modalities.

There is much distasteful material on the internet and doubtless on Freenet. I suspect that much of this is the same stuff cycling round and round. The priority for law enforcement should not be the relatively easy option of identifying people in possession of this material but rather at grabbing those who create it in the first place. This is where the traditional internet is so important because only on it is there commerce. Cabals sharing a criminal interest, operating covertly and not putting the product of their activities for sale on the internet will be broken only by serendipity arising from traditional policing methods.

ToR causes a marked slowing of browser response. That's because the number of people using it are relatively few. What would make these technologies sit up and work is the introduction of millions of new non-combatant users motivated to avoid governmental surveillance and copyright controls. These dark side technologies are relatively immature, yet I can see at least one design that links ToR, Kademlia and strong cryptography that would present an intractable file sharing system and alternative email backbone. The question is this: given that relatively few malcontent users are using simple technologies, is it desirable to obfuscate them behind millions of benign users deploying strong technologies because of incontinent legislation? If I were employed by the Portuguese secret service, I'd be rather concerned about losing the ability to see the bad guys from the trees.

Ugh. Ok, so who is creating all this dark content? Are there 400-500 times more people creating content than we 'know' about? On the net content is king. There is unlinked content, mostly image files, but frankly most of that is probably illegal sexual stuff and while there is some truly unpleasant stuff out there in the hard to find places there are an awful lot more legal porn images (because it's a vast business) and teenagers on youtube putting up clips of them taking the piss out of their mates, because it's easier than videoing the construction of homemade nuclear devices.

Google doesn't simply search JSTOR - publishers are required to provide google with something called an abstract to crawl before their content can be indexed (basically the non-subscriber landing page). I create content on the darkweb (silly term) everyday such as hidden back content to support published websites, and none of it is crawled by google or anyone else for that matter. And none of it is in the least bit illegal or even morally dubious. Most of the unknown web is full of boring web infrastructures, and certainly not child pornography.

Predictive searches never show porn related stuff (or so I have read); I guess that would conflict with Google's public image, but if you type rotten you get before you've typed tomatoes; some time ago Google courted some controversy by refusing to take down a racist photoshopped pic of Michelle Obama - citing rules that they only removed content when legally required to do so, all of which makes their ethics seem a little patchy. The point I'm trying to make is that I would gladly trade free albums for the loss of sites like rotten.

I'll probably get criticised for this and I'm aware that there is no perfect solution. No-one wants an internet with little free content and a big buy button on the top of the screen, but I am concerned about the excesses of the internet (never mind the dark web freenet thing) and its influence on peoples' morality and behaviour. I think the idea of "public" content being in the minority is a complete fantasy and the percentages plucked from the air, also I think it should be made clearer that there is a big difference between actively hidden content and activity for clandestine, political or paranoid reasons, and content that is simply defunct, old outdated websites that no one links to any more but aren't deleted, abandoned personal websites or free websites for companies that have gone out of business. Hard drive space is cheap these days and older websites don't take up much room. Also important is separating traffic from actual useful available web content, files or communication; no doubt a huge amount of traffic is taken up by spam and automated programs like trojans and the like. The idea of a huge goldmine of interesting secret information that dwarfs the public web makes no sense, the number of users and content publishers in these "sub nets" are by their very nature minuscule.

Virtually everyone I know with a computer does or has at some point downloaded music or films through Limewire or rapidshare or whatever, and those who haven't have at the very least watched unlicensed rips of shows on youtube for example - and none of those people would consider themselves criminal, even remotely. It's one of the odd things I've always thought about the whole filesharing thing - it's right there, hugely visible and you don't need to search far to get to it - just post the name of a record in google and you're likely to get to a rapidshare link or an equivalent within two or three pages of results. Google will probably lead you to thousands more pirated works than I imagine you'd ever find on freenet.

Johansen’s book is not earth-shattering, but it gives all the basic necessary ingredients for you to dip your toes in the water dark-web-wise.

quarta-feira, abril 19, 2017

Dated Crime Fiction: "Sunset Express" by Robert Crais

Gosh, Robert Crais! I really want to like you, but after lots of books in and it still feels like gawky blind dating rather than true love.  I should be really digging these Crais novels, but I’m not. A smart-aleck gauntleting detective with a mean-as-hell friend is something that I can’t get enough of in other books. But something just isn’t coalescing here. From Crais first novel, I thought that Crais was doing a west coast version of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels and that feeling continues here. It isn’t Crais’ fault that I’m reading these over many years after he wrote them and that they seem dated in a lot of ways to me; having said this, there are still just too many clichés for me to overlook in this. Plus, Elvis is just such a dogged know-it-all that he tends to get on my nerves. Characters like Marlowe, Spenser or Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie can be wise asses and tough guys, but it feels like Cole can’t let the mildest thing go by without trying to act like a comic at karaoke night. What saves this book Cole’s quick jokes. So quick, he had me laughing like crazy a few pages in. That's pretty darn quick.

NB: According to BL/GR/LT this is my 400th/396th/394th book review. I believe BL is correct.

segunda-feira, abril 17, 2017

Nuanced SF: "Crackpot Palace - Stories" by Jeffrey Ford

There are two kinds of "favourite books," I always say. There are the ones that you recognize as original in concept, extremely well written, and strong in theme. Then there are the ones that say something personal to you so that you identify with the protagonist, live in that society, laugh at the jokes and thrill at the adventure, but also realize that the style may not be so good or the theme so strong. I ain't half the SF geek I was when I was younger - you know, before I discovered characterisation and inner life - but I still appreciate a good novel of ideas. So often, it comes down to a tug-of-war of definitions and false differences of opinion. The mundane literary establishment tends to demean SF. Yet, the works of Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut are just as much SF, using the same devices to advance the same thought experiments and commentary on society as many other SF writers can do. Quite honestly, many of the SF writers do at least as good a job of tackling the thorny issues as the more literary writers, and write extremely well. On the other hand, there are certainly books written to be enjoyed and consumed, without quite such a hefty intellectual burden. These have their place (in SF and, frankly, in mundane fiction) as well. SF and mundane literature are not and need not be exclusive domains. It’s stupid that different literary realms will try to claim a book like “The Road” for themselves. “It’s highfalutin literature!” “No, it’s SF!” “It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine, you idiot!” As a reader, I want both gorgeous prose and a strong plot. And that’s where Jeffrey Ford comes in. He’s one of those writers that is both comfortable in the SF and literary domains. Jonathan Lethem is another case in point. Reading a short-story collection by Jeffrey Ford is like taking a master class in how to write, and "Crackpot Palace: Stories" is the author's most masterful yet. Not only do the stories range widely across popular genres, from noir to horror to high fantasy to literary, but each exhibits expert understanding and control of the elements that breathe life into these forms. I became invested in the characters, absorbed in their internal and external mysteries, enveloped by their locales, and enthralled with the themes they explore. Ford's prose is as precise and nuanced as ever, and he bends his style to serve each tale differently. The casual everyday idiom and lightly profane voice perfectly fit the hilarious suburban satire "Sit the Dead," while a rural directness and earnestness in the narrative language help to shape both "Down Atsion Road". Most of the stories don't neatly fit into a single genre but instead straddle two or more categories confidently, and this provides part of their freshness. Everyone is a treat, and the whole collection is an expansive and satisfying feast. His characters are unique and so vividly described you can easily see them. You should remember “Robot General”, “Jimmy Tooth”, and “Father Walter” well after having finished this short-story collection. Ford has a unique imagination and a calm, assured way of writing that is intoxicatingly seductive. I loved almost all of these stories even the crazy ones.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, abril 15, 2017

Matthew 28

I loved Bookstooge's post so much I was pushed to emphasize it through a text of "me" own:

To be a true believer is a wonderful gift. I can’t take any credit for it though. Ordinarily one cannot just seek belief – it finds you when you’re ready. That readiness has to do with making space within for an answer. But many of us today are crammed full of opinions and second-hand facts – that is the way of the world. It has to do with ego of course – we don’t like to have emptiness inside. But the act of making space is what lies behind the meaning of to “ask”. Ask (empty yourself) and ye shall receive.

quarta-feira, abril 12, 2017

This is How the World Will End: "The Art of Invisibility" by Kevin Mitnick, Robert Vamosi

This book calls for a limerick of "me" own:

This is how the world will end.
This is how the world will end.
Not with the roar of a lion
But with the click of a mouse.

Mitnick's and Vamosi's book is for the layman. You won't find here buffer overflows (NOP sled,  or overwriting the stack return pointer), network scans/DoS attacks, integer overflow exploitation, details about recent techniques to bypass ASLR, shell-code injection, network sniffing, no kernel hacking/rootkit exploits, i.e., it does not break ground as a book to explain how hacking and software exploits work and how readers could develop and implement their own. It's a breezy read with lots of information, but the deep dives aren't there.

Reading this, it got me thinking once again on IT security aspects. I've done this recently when I read my last security book. Every time I read something like this, I always get in the mood "Oooh spooky, 'cyber security', how hip, how now." Cyber security is what used to be called 'spying' and that goes back to erm...Caesar Augustus as emperor lived in a modest two story home in central Rome. Two floors around an open central area and thin columns sparsely placed to form colonnaded mezzanine ground and top floor and no drapes or hangings - he lived in a modest house with open mezzanines so that NO ONE COULD HIDE BEHIND columns and listen to his conversations. Spying is as old as ancient governments.

Technology helped the dissemination to become global, helping thus "disseminators" on all sides to keep each other in power even easier.
The actual sides in that war are not different groups of "disseminators", but all "disseminators" of fake news on one side, and all recipients of fake news on the other.
Hacking, being digital or "analogue" one, is a weapon of recipients' defense, therefore all hackers, being digital or "analogue" ones, are "Fifth Column" to all of the fake news "disseminators". And, of course that "disseminators" is the term borrowed from management theory. The Fake News War is about management of facts, which to hide and which to reveal in averted form.

I mean, come on... people are being fired and/or punished for accidentally forgetting one confidential paper on the office table overnight and not under the lock.  So, we are not talking then about hacking as the warfare which started the cyberwar, but about cyberspace as the warfare, however and whatever for it is used. Then we may say that the cyberwar started not in 21st century, but in the late 70s, when the first permanent ARPANET link was established between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute. Besides, we call them First and Second World War, not the gas/tanks/trenches war and plane/rockets/atomic war respectively. I'm arguing that hacking is not the most important weapon of choice to alleged sides in war, but the fake news which has been disseminated for ages before the cyberspace started to exist.
The next world war may well be fought in Cyberspace but it won’t resemble the mischief or the malicious hacks we've been witnessing (Stuxnet gave a glimpse of the potential - the Iranian nuclear centrifuges were driven into meltdown). It will be an altogether more devastating attack on vulnerable civilian and military infrastructure, as likely as not launched from a third world country without a developed economy vulnerable to counter attack (not that the targets will be able to identify the source of the attack).
The greatest danger is not Russia but probably ISIL or a small rogue state - North Korea is a possibility. Imagine the damage if the Internet is taken down, if transport, water, power and utilities cease to function. We're sleepwalking into a potential meltdown.

I still hear lots of people talk about the TalkTalk situation (forgive me the pleonasm...). Let's be clear about it. Broken into by a young hacker? How bloody fortunate you all are that it was not the Chinese, Russians, Koreans, or Americans. But perhaps they already did, and you haven't yet found out. Would they even know? Apparently they still don't know whose data may or may not have been compromised. The real story here appears to be a lack of adequate security. Data that is not encrypted. A lack of layers of protection that prevent access to anything of importance. And a level of overall control of access that is so poor that a 15-year old can get in. Perhaps the word is porous. If anyone is at fault, it is not the successful hacker, but the company that failed to apply the time and resources (including funds) required to meet their responsibilities and obligations to those whose information they hold in trust. Too many companies are run by non-technical posho/MBA idiots who think the IT team are the home help, and not the people who keep the engine room running.
There are clear issues of due diligence and corporate responsibility which can only be solved by fines for board members and disqualifications addressed at company members.  Until then we'll have to put up with the corporate equivalent of directors who leave customer secrets in a filing cabinet in the street under a sign saying "It's not locked." if only TalkTalk spent 10% of what they spent on advertising on security.

All the cushy over paid jobs are in marketing, law etc. Engineers need more respect / pay. They do all relevant work. Marketing people are mostly about trying to get you to choose one brand over the other. But so much is spent on it - they lose out on quality and service in their product. Talktalk is a classic example. "Sponsoring" popular TV programmes (more money of our money going to over paid talentless people: “Portugal’s Got Talent, and crap like that).

There is a bit of a secondary problem which gets no attention at all: running a badly secured computer may end up making you an unwitting collaborator in crime - the Denial Of Service attacks (basically flooding a service so it no longer works) is only possible using thousands of hacked systems, and hacked systems are often used as proxies for the real criminal to hide behind. Strangely, the most prevalent OS still needs the sticking plaster of anti-virus software to be anywhere near suitable for use on the Internet. Back in the day, when I was doing this as a night job, I remember having found a page on one website that always took a long time to render. If I hit it with a few requests the whole of the website was inaccessible. I could kill the site from a browser. Turned out, talking to one of the developers I knew, that there was some badly written SQL used to render that page that caused the database server(s) to grind to a halt. WTF?? And don't let me start talking about the way operating systems can be got at. There have been totally new concepts of PC software put forward by those far better than me, which would cut down a lot of the vulnerabilities we now see, but no one cares and they would involve a radical re-think of how we use the web. It would involve total ownership of the Operating System by the user, it would be impossible to alter or add to and would be a physical non writeable entity. No agreement to terms or any of that rubbish, it would be yours only. Beyond that there would be a 4 stage later before you get out to where we use the web today. Attacks would be more and more difficult as you go down through the layers and compromise of the Op. System would be impossible. I have heard techies walking through this set-up and agreeing that only the host of the router would be able to trawl or snoop in a blanket way, and any suspected compromise could be cleaned immediately. It would be better than we have today, but would curtail lots of money making habits companies are used to currently, and involve the users actively maintaining their Op. System a bit like looking after a fish tank. We just don't seem to care much about the security, so any improvement is unlikely, plus there are an awful lot of people doing very nicely out of the way it is currently thank you. It is my firm opinion that people are not too bothered about the Secret Services looking and watching, under some supervision, for security reasons, but the ongoing access of all activity to be disseminated to others on an "official" basis is the widespread concern on most.

As the snooping could be done at all routers or by piggy backing onto hubs, the Secret Services should be able to get whatever they want, there should not be a problem.
I imagine key depression is what they are wanting to monitor through the Op. System upgrade, they then pick up everything before encryption, and get decent profiling of keying speed and the personal idiosyncrasies of the user's hand actions, but the whole thing could be a lot simpler and robust with most people getting largely what they want, except the criminals (in the main).
The whole thing is in a real mess, and when the Secret Services can't even keep the Atomic Bomb, The Watergate Project, or even the current Mass Surveillance infrastructure secret, it does make people feel like some new thinking is required.

The typical hacker relies on lack of defenses, inadequate security budgets and ineptitude of middle managers (let's direct resources at this non-problem, and leave all the SQL un-encrypted). I worked on lots of "on-the-side" projects where these hackers were constantly trying to break in and award themselves "the sword of dobber". Simply encryption and authentication took care of every hacker except the military grade/Israeli. Most of these guys knew how to run Linux as root and frequent forums that give them most of what they know, aside from that they succeed where the gatekeepers leave the back door open.

On a side note, because I really hate Mr. Robot, let me once more add fuel to the fire. As a piece of drama Mr. Robot is pretty rubbish. Its world view is naïve, adolescent, and confused. The Christian Slater character is an immature and delusional idiot - the eternal narcissistic adolescent clown. Please do not re-boot.

segunda-feira, abril 10, 2017

Micro-Fiction, Text 006: "Everyone's Short on Talent" by Myselfie

Ant McPartlin has his hand on my shoulder and things are happening to me. For example, I’m sweating in a strange place: my buttocks. And I’m unexpectedly aroused by Ant McPartlin’s hand on my shoulder. I love Dec (always have done), but I think I’m developing feelings for Ant. He’s tender, and his sense of humour is subtle. I can’t believe I never noticed this until now, of all bloody times, of all bloody places. I look round and Dec is picking at a dried ketchup stain on his tie. I look at Ant’s hand on my shoulder. He has beautiful fingers. My buttocks sweat some more.
I’m worrying that my perspiring arse will create dark patches on my dress. Oh well. I’ll try to keep facing the audience, but my natural tendency is to turn round and sing with my back to them. Concentrate Jodie. You can do this.
The audience is cheering and Ant McPartlin says ‘break a leg’ or ‘good luck’ or ‘go get ‘em babes’ or something. I’m walking onto the stage and the audience quietens down. My stomach shrinks and I think I’m near the middle of the stage but I’m not sure.
Simon Cowell is the first to speak. ‘Hallo sweetheart, tell us about yourself.’
I accidentally bop myself on the nose as I move the microphone closer. It makes a loud flumpf sound and the audience go fucking wild, man. Cheryl Cole simpers and wrinkles her Geordie nose. Dannii Minogue smiles like a bitch, or rather she would if she could actually move her botoxed face. Louis Walsh is swinging around in his seat, looking back at the audience, looking at me, looking back at the audience, looking at me.
‘Um. My name’s Jodie, I’m from London, and I want to change the world.’
‘Well this isn’t a Miss World contest, but never mind.’
So droll, Simon Cowell. You wanker.
‘What are you going to sing for us?’ Louis asks. Obvious fucking question.
‘Earth Song,’ I say.
‘Wow. Tough song. Good luck.’ Simon sucks on his pencil and leans back in his seat. Yes. He looks good tonight. That beautiful bastard. ‘Whenever you’re ready then darling.’
I decided I wanted to go a cappella, so here I am, going a cappella. I look at my feet for effect and then I look up at the audience slowly, for effect.

“What about sunrise?
I’ve started perfectly.
What about rain?
Yeah baby.
What about all the things that you-“

Oh shit. I realise that I’m no longer facing the audience. The audience are cackling and I’ve stopped singing. The audience are still cackling and I can feel my buttocks sweating. I look out to the wing and I can see Ant and Dec, both gesturing frantically for me to turn back round.
‘Er, Jodie?’ It’s Cheryl. ‘Are you ok?’
‘It’s not my fault I’ve got a sweaty arse! Blame Ant McPartlin! He’s done something to me! He’s got beautiful fingers!’ I look across to the wing again and Dec is having a seizure of giggles and holding onto Ant for support. Ant just stares at me, and shrugs Dec’s hand off his shoulder. I think he smiles.
I slowly turn back round.
‘I’m sorry. It’s a tendency I have. I don’t realise I’ve turned round until it’s too late – I’m completely numb to it.’
‘Well,’ Cheryl says, ‘why don’t you have another go. You started beautifully.’ She simpers and wrinkles her Geordie nose again. Simon protests by rolling his eyes. Dannii Minogue tries to move her botoxed face but can’t. Louis Walsh is leaning forward in his chair, eyes wild and completely mad. The audience whoop and chant my name.
‘Oh alright. Once more,’ Simon says, capitulating. The he adds, dryly, ‘With feeling.’ The other judges groan at Simon’s stupid gag but then everything goes quiet and it’s left to me to start singing again.
I start from the second verse, because it’s the most powerful.

“What have we done to the world?
Look what we’ve done.
What about all the peace that you pledged your only son?
What about flowering fields?
Is there a time?
What about all the dreams that you said were yours and mine?
Did you ever stop to notice
All the children dead from war?
Did you ever stop to notice
This crying earth, the weeping shores?”

I pause, for effect.

When I finally disimprison the chorus of ‘aah-aah-aaaaaah-aryeeyah-aahyeeyaah, aaah’, my arms are outstretched, and members of the audience pull their lighters out and sway them slowly in the air. It’s a rarefied and pretty sight. I look at the judges, and they’re all crying. When I start singing ‘ooh-ooh-oooooh-ooweeyoo-ooweeyoo, oooh’, the audience joins in, the judges join in, the people at home join in. Louis and Dannii hug. Cheryl and Simon kiss with tongues. Cameramen swell with joy. Producers call executives. Executives call the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister goes to the UN. The debt is dropped. AIDS drugs are given out for free in Africa. Rainforests are preserved. CO2 emissions cease. World Peace is declared.

I finish a repeat of the chorus and chuck the microphone on the floor. I moonwalk off the stage, and Ant McPartlin offers to buy me dinner. He sweeps me off my feet, and I peek over his shoulder at Simon Cowell, who gives me a congratulatory wink. You did it kiddo, he seems to say, and my buttocks stop sweating.

domingo, abril 09, 2017

Unreliability of Fiction: “The Devil You Know” by K. J. Parker

“I don't do evil when I'm not on duty, just as prostitutes tend not to have sex on their days off. My ideal off-shift day starts with a hot bath and the scent of black tea, followed by an hour on my balcony with a good book; then a stroll through the busy streets to view an art exhibition, hear a sermon or philosophical debate, or simply admire the mosaics in the Blue Temple.”

In “The Devil You Know” by K. J. Parker

The underpass is vacant apart from a solitary figure headed directly toward her. A woman around Romany's own age, and not too dissimilar from how she looks.
'I see you're not taking the advice,' the police officer says nodding to the wall. 'The poster. We're advising young women to be careful not to walk alone when they don't have to. He's killed three.'
'I'm sorry, I didn't see it. I'm only headed around the corner,' Romeny replies.
'I'll walk you along. I hope you've been watching the news.'
Out of the underpass now, Romeny learns a lot about the officer. She learns her name, that she's part Irish, that she isn't a natural blonde, and the police are no closer to finding the monster.
Romeny also knows that there are no cameras here, nor are there any cameras within a square mile of this alleyway. She remembers from the maps that decorate her basement flat.
It's how she's gotten away with it for so long.
She hasn't planned on it tonight, but the night is so young and crisp and the porcelain flesh of her new friend so inviting, she doesn't see any reason why she can't play.
She reaches into her jacket pocket and thumbs the icy blade it shelters.
This will be fun, she thinks.

And again, it is.

sábado, abril 08, 2017

Unreliability in Fiction: "Blue and Gold" by K. J. Parker

“The two predominant factors that make me up, philosophy and criminality, when combined, when combined together on the block of ice hat serves me for a personality go to make up alchemy.”

In “Blue and Gold” by K. J. Parker


Beep… -cking answering machines! Kevin… Kevin… Kevin, I know you’re there. With her probably, whoever she is – stupid cow. Listen Kevin, you actually love me really. You’re jus’ confuuuused, and I don’t blame you. But you better not do anything you’ll regret – and if you’re doing it now I will hunt you down and… and cut your goolies off… You see the thing is… the thing is… God, iss really ridiculous communicating like this. We’re human beings. Why don'sh you just pick up the phone and we’ll talk like grown-up adults. Hmm? Hmm KEVIN, PICK UP THE BLOODY PHO… Beep.


“Do you remember a bar where we met? It was one of those bars like you used to see in The Sweeney. Only that was London in the 70s. All fag-ends, strippers and sticky carpet. Lively. This place looked the same, but the mood was different. Unemployed gas fitters at the bar snacked on scampi fries and planned what they would do when they won the lottery when you tried successfully to hit on me. I still remember what you said, “Great big tits, like.” “And a nice little flat for yer gran.” We laughed into our pints of bitter and gave the barmaid an unrequited smile. Even then it wasn’t our boozer any more. Too much had changed. Or stayed the same.”


“Do you remember that one time, 1 a.m. Saturday night? In the bar next door, raging hormones were laying the groundwork for love stories that might last forever. But in the sweet shop all was quiet - just the odd rustle of the newspaper on his endless vigil. He works the graveyard shift. Alone. Sweets, fancy chocolate, bouquets of bad flowers, greeting cards, fruit. Everything is like something you would bring someone in hospital. But he himself looked like he’d never want to visit a hospital ever again. Sagging skin, ashen pallor, wrinkles like lines in a song. A blues number, ‘My baby done gone.’ Remember??”


She perched on the cold, hard edge, taut fingers gripping. It had to end. No more waiting, no more hurting, no more shame and pain and hoping in vain.
She dared to glance down. A pink line for positive. The End. And the beginning.

“Shit. It’s her again…Not even in the toilette does she leave me alone”. As he said this, the brown monster leapt from the cave into the waters below with a deafening splash. He had done a big poo.

NB: I just wanted to write something like an unreliable narrator the way K. J. Parker did. What is true, what is false? “Meloves” liars in fiction…

quarta-feira, abril 05, 2017

Coruscating Beams of Force: "Exploring Science Through Science Fiction" by Barry B. Luokkala

Ah, E.E. "Doc" Smith's coruscating beams of force ... he introduced these early on, and then every couple of chapters would want to up the ante, so would have to try and outdo his earlier description, and they would become ravening beams of unimaginable pure power…

But "science-fiction" is just a catch-all phrase for speculative fiction, not an enforceable limitation. I used to read tons of SF, all the way from junk/pulp through to the serious hard-science stuff and the only complaint I ever have about any individual book is if it's badly written. Some of the more glaring errors and redundant theories raise an eye-brow (I love H. P. Lovecraft despite plate tectonics being fifty years in his future and all his mentions of aluminiferous ether...) but what the hell, if it's a good book it's a good book.

A lot of very readable and entertaining SF is grounded in Clarke's observation that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." A character who pops what looks like an aspirin tablet into what looks like a microwave and then retrieves and eats a vindaloo is behaving as realistically as I am when I order a pizza. If she then steps into a time machine, she needn't know any more about how it works than I need to know what really happens when I turn on the lights. In fact, I'd worry about the success of a book that said "Gwen's knowledge of farming and baking enabled her to eat a pizza, and since she understood the principles of electrical transmission, she was able to eat it with the lights on." If anything, I think that too many SF books try to explain made up science that their characters, if real, would probably just take for granted.

Sometimes we fail to recognise that some of the best SF writing is not very technical at all. I'm thinking here of the likes of Philip K. Dick, or Walter M. Miller, who tried to make philosophical points about humanity and our past and future without alienating readers with scientific mumbo jumbo. The technocratic side of SF is all well and good, but it isn't the whole story either.

I think there is something ridiculous about people who try to make links between popular science fiction and real science. Much science fiction is really magical fantasy dressed up with scientific language to make it palatable to a modern audience (Doctor Who with his magic wand, sorry sonic screwdriver, Star Trek with its cosmic vibrations that everything from psychically gifted therapists to starship engines can tune into). They are entertainment written by people with an arts background who have no understanding of science and no interest in it, except as a source of impressive special effects. A lot of science fiction is actually pseudo-science that has more in common with Californian new age mysticism, like Star Wars. I can only think of a handful of works of SF that are genuinely scientific. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey descended into religious mysticism. And when Hollywood starts dabbling in time travel any pretense of scientific rationality goes out of the window. The science is SF is like the science in adverts for magical bracelets that cure rheumatism and often uses the same technique, borrowing half-understood concepts like quantum physics to justify any ludicrous claim a snake oil salesman (or Hollywood scriptwriter) has dreamed up. That doesn't mean that I don't enjoy SF. One of my favourite films is “Blade Runner”, but the science in it is laughable.
On the other hand, we have films like “The Matrix” wherein some of the science is top-notch: The holographic principal, Mathematical universe hypothesis (MUH) and Artificial intelligence (AI) for a start.

When it comes to Star Trek, and as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out. Were there no sliding doors before Star Trek? That would be fascinating if so, but it seems unlikely. I hope I'm wrong!
Oh yes. I almost forgot. If a whole bunch of equations can’t faze you, you should definitely read Luokkala’s book. What a blast to watch some of the Star Trek episodes coming back to life through physics. That was one of the reasons I went into engineering…

NB: I’m still fuming from the latest Abrams incursion into Star Trek territory…Watching hours of constant, confusing and predictable action scenes with an incoherent plot, cliches and "unamusing" one liners is not my idea of enjoyment. Or value for money. I really struggle to find any redeeming features. I'm a Trekkie, taking great enjoyment from trek films. The last two were just symptomatic of Hollywood’s money maximizing strategy and I mourn the betrayal of gene Roddenberry’s original vision. It was HORRIBLE!!! Simon Pegg you need to have you Star Trek Fan Card revoked. The plot made no sense at all and come on the Beasty Boys saved the day, and, of course, we have to be PC with the token gay couple!! RIP Star Trek I will miss you and what a present (NOT) for the 50th anniversary. Well I will go to Netflix and watch some real Trek now.

NB2: For those you not mathematically challenged, read the Alcubierre’s article mentioned in the book about Star Trek’s warp drive.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

segunda-feira, abril 03, 2017

Cardamom Pod to Chew: "How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career" by James Scott Bell

Sushi is flipping delicious regardless of whether or not it's fashionable. It is tasty, tasty, tasty goodness, just the same as Toad in the Hole or a bowl of tomato soup with white plastic bread and butter. That is, when it’s not shit, but I guess it depends what we mean by shit. I've always found the real enemy of literature to be "good writing" - stuff that's OK and technically competent but utterly lacking any spark. Of course that covers a massive ability spectrum, but I think it accounts for the great majority of what finds its way to a lot of slush. Absolutely agree about the paucity of really good writing Bell writes about. I used to read short fiction slush back in the day (Analog, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Omni, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Amazing Stories (the revamped version)), and a few others). I read several hundred thousand stories and only found a few authors who really had the goods.

I love writing a bit of short fiction now and then, it makes a change from the churn of posts. It sometimes feels like revving the engine on a car to blow the soot away, clearing my "writing pipes" and enjoying the racing feeling. The beauty of a short fiction piece for me is also that I don't have to plan an ending, I can just see where it goes, let it lead me in the same way it'll lead a reader (hopefully) and often the ending is a twist I didn't imagine until it fell out of my fingers onto the keyboard.

As for there not being much of a market for it? Well, granted I've not made much money (any) from it, but the genre is suited perfectly to the masses of e-readers and smart phones being used on night time commutes and waiting room sentences, what better way to spend twenty minutes on the tube in Lisbon than imagining you are on a bus in Barbados?

One thing short fiction does for me is teach me how to zero in on the one kernel at the heart of what they are doing that can be reduced no further, and that is surely a skill invaluable to any writer. It also makes you fight to have your voice heard - any restriction will do that, hence their value. If you can make your voice your own between 1K and 7K words that's an incredible skill, and one that should you choose to lift the restrictions will make that voice sing out gloriously.

Short fiction isn't particularly satisfying for a reader looking for a piece of fiction, I agree, just as being given a cardamom pod to chew is pretty unsatisfying when you're looking for a meal; but if you're coming to short fiction with the same kind of expectations you'd have for a poem, it can be a lot of fun.

As a shitty writer, short fiction is a useful and enjoyable exercise for tightening up prose and condensing narrative effectively. Working within a rigid structure, whether it's writing a sonnet or a villanelle or tweet, can be an effective and inspirational discipline in its own right.

With all respect for the individuals writing short fiction for the Kindle, this book demonstrates perfectly why arbitrary rules like those of short fiction aren't a good idea. I've read a lot of short stories published for the Kindle, and with a few largely generic exceptions - stories told in dialogue or in the personae of children or animals, plus a few by people who just can't write - they might all have been written by the same person. Short sentences, simple words, the occasional “verbless” sentence (like this one) for variety: identical rhythms running through all of them. Everything the summer-schools teach you. I bet none of you would dream of using an adverb with a verb of speech, would you? Or creating a character whose complete backstory you didn't know, even if you weren't going to use any of it? Or - heaven forbid - economically telling the reader an unimportant detail if it could possibly be 'shown' (whatever that means in written narrative) at twice the length instead, though without becoming any more informative in the process? All the rules that real writers broke through the centuries, and still break now, today's writers keep as they were told to, until they have nothing new to say because no way of saying anything that hasn't already been said - isn't being said in the same moment by thousands like them throughout the Anglophone world. I'm doing it myself, listen. Are you listening? Except, I suppose, for cutting that paragraph into equal short lengths, regardless of the unit of meaning it represents, the way they taught me at the British Council.

And because I can. Here goes my own attempt at sounding smart and cultivated by writing a very short, short piece of fiction:

Pen: Uniball eye micro by Mitsubishi.
Paper: A4 spiral pad.
Microsoft Word 2007: turned on and ready to go.
Brain: willing.
Aim: To write that novel I always had in me.

I knew what I wanted it to be about. It would be a perpetuating tragedy, with an underlying social commentary. The pathological of the individual against a backdrop of rising tension between groups of different backgrounds. There would be sex, death, hope, hate, love, anger and revenge. I had done my research. I knew how I wanted to start. I knew the chronology of events that would create my story. And I knew how it would end. The concept was complete, ready to be executed. And there I sat, at the computer screen, pen in mouth, nibbling away at it. I was thirsty, hungry, twitchy. A glance at the clock: five to nine. That show on RTP2 will be starting any minute…Maybe I should write this masterpiece some other time.

sábado, abril 01, 2017

My Inner Vision of Italy: "The Brewer of Preston" by Andrea Camilleri

As with cinema, when I’m reading something like a Camilleri novel, it’s always possible to discuss its heightened reality. You concentrate life, as one does in theater. The proscenium arch for film is its syntax. Some thoughts arise, like when discussing reality. Imagine you ask someone who is talking about another person, "What are you doing?" They answer, "Well, I'm trying to tell you this and that, etc.” But you look at them and say, "No...What are you doing?" They get somewhat thrown, or agitated, or confused. Eventually lines are drawn. It's such a simple question. But it is really asking for you to really meditate or think about what this whole process of communication is really up to. What rules are being followed...what political system of exchange is really going on? What part of this is really a card shuffling act? What shifts of power are taking place in this exchange? What are you keeping me from noticing? What is being depended on? The question is simple, but the reality of the exchange is buried. There may not be words to describe the real chemistry of the exchange, and there may be issues about the decimation of personality inherent in the query. The many levels of reality that exist do not necessarily lend themselves to what Camilleri desires in his writing. The Italian reality that Camilleri's typing fingers align with, that offer more chance and accident may not inherently bring forth mysteries or truths, or even depths of experience. It's the arrangement of the reality, the artifice of the presentation, the syntax of the language of editing the events which takes place behind the scenes that manifests the gestalt of the experience. I think it was Antonioni who said that if one could explain a film, then it was not a film. Adding more realistic transactions in a design does not promise a quantum leap or realization from the experience. It's the reader, or the film watcher who adds their reality to these set conditions, and ours hearts, conscious and unconscious minds weave pearls of understanding upon them. A book is the launch pad. Whatever reality it contains will always be one of omission. That’s what draws me in to the Camilleri novels. We’re not reading about the “real” Italy (or Sicily to be more precise). What I’m reading is my inner vision of Italy. Nothing else.