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Brontosaurus BDSM, Werewolf Marines, and Serious Social Issues: Self-Publishing in the Wild

Hello. I'm Rachel Manija Brown, co-author (with Sherwood Smith) of the YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, Stranger, and its sequel, Hostage. Stranger was published by Viking. Hostage was self-published. More on that in a moment.

Hello again. I'm also Lia Silver, author of the urban fantasy/paranormal romance series, Werewolf Marines, which is about werewolf Marines. Also PTSD and breaking the rules of at least two genres. (In my "Rachel no-middle-name Brown" identity, who doesn't write anything but treatment plans, I'm a PTSD therapist.)

And hello yet again. I'm also Rebecca Tregaron, author of the lesbian romance/urban fantasy/Gothic/romantic comedy/culinary mystery/everything and the kitchen sink Angel in the Attic, and the lesbian erotica, "Bound in Silk and Steel," in Her Private Passion: More Tales of Pleasure and Domination. (That's an anthology of lesbian erotica with 100% of its profits donated to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Please consider purchasing it or its companion gay anthology, His Prize Possession if your interests include human rights, lesbian spanking, or gay tentacles.)

Lia and Rebecca are self-published. Rachel is traditionally published and self-published. Since you probably already know plenty about traditional publishing, I'm here to talk about self-publishing.

If you click on the cut, you will eventually get to a discussion about the indie erotica subgenre about sex with dinosaurs, minotaurs, and Bigfoot.

All discussion below is of the American publishing industry, because that's what I know about. I would be interested to hear about publishing in other countries.

The advent of the e-reader brought about a dramatic change in self-publishing. As Sherwood discussed in her blog post, self-publishing has a very long history. But with the rise of publishers as we now know them, self-publishing became both denigrated and difficult. It's the rare person who can make a living, or even break even, selling their own books out of the trunk of their car.

And then there were e-books. In particular, there was Amazon. Over the course of a few years, self-publishing became technically simple and potentially rewarding. "Should I self-publish or traditionally publish?" is now a serious question for many new writers, who formerly would not have considered self-publishing until and unless they'd been rejected from every traditional publisher in existence.

There are plenty of reasons to traditionally publish, such as advance money, your book placed in bookstores, prestige, library sales, lack of interest/skill at the business aspects of being a writer, potentially better publicity, the publisher providing editing and cover art for free, distrust of Amazon, and so forth. These are all clear benefits, so I'll leave it at that. Instead, I'll focus on the reasons writers choose to self-publish.

One of the most obvious reasons to self-publish is that, for whatever reason, your book is unconventional, cross-genre, hard to categorize, hard to market, rule-breaking, or simply in an unfashionable genre. My own Angel in the Attic is both cross-genre and peculiar; the Werewolf Marines books have very unconventional elements for their genres. Courtney Milan, formerly a Harlequin romance novelist, turned to self-publishing in part because the books she wanted to write were too quirky and her protagonists didn't fit the popular mold. As her FAQ says, The notes on everything would have come back as "NEEDS MOAR JERK." Space opera with intricate worldbuilding seems to have largely fallen out of fashion, which may be why Ankaret Wells self-published her charming Maker's Mask books.

But there are more serious reasons. Belonging to a minority or marginalized group means that you face obstacles that members of the majority don't, and traditional publishing is no different from any other field in that regard. Obviously, some books by diverse writers and about diverse characters do get published traditionally. But the barriers are real.

Before we sold Stranger to Viking, an agent offered us representation on the condition that we make a gay character straight or remove his romance and all references to his sexual orientation. If you read the comments of the article, you'll see many more writers discussing their experiences with agents and editors requesting that they make characters white or straight. Our experience was not a one-of-a-kind fluke, but a single example of a real problem.

I'm sure you can think of YA novels that have LBGTQ characters. But it's like naming female heads of state: everyone can name a few, but they tend to be the same ones. That's because there's not very many of them, so the few that exist are memorable. As of 2011, less than 1% of all YA novels had any LGBTQ characters at all, even minor supporting characters. (By 2014, the percentage had risen to 2%, but most were from LGBTQ small presses.) And this doesn't just involve sexual orientation: Characters in children's books are almost always white.

So where does this leave the writers who belong to those underrepresented groups or just want to write about them? A few do succeed in traditional publishing. Many more write for small presses. But increasingly, they're turning to self-publishing, where they can connect with readers who either want to read about people like them, or are simply tired of only reading about straight white able-bodied British or American characters.

Dr. Zetta Elliott writes here about independently publishing African-American children's books. Neesha Meminger wanted to give South Asian teens something fun to read. Courtney Milan writes witty romances with protagonists who have mental illnesses, are people of color, or (in an upcoming novel) are transgender. And then there's the booming genres of gay and lesbian romance. Not to mention the indie writers of contemporary and paranormal (heterosexual) romance, thrillers, science fiction, and romantic comedy whose books are similar to those published traditionally except that the protagonists are not white.

I self-published my Werewolf Marines books partly because of those issues. The heroine of Laura's Wolf is Jewish. I can count the numbers of Jewish heroines I've encountered in traditionally published romance or urban fantasy on the fingers of one hand. The hero of Prisoner and Partner is Filipino. Asian-American heroes in those genres are about as common as Jewish heroines. That's not to say that it would be impossible to sell a book in those genres with the protagonists I had. But I didn't want to risk banging my head against the wall for years and years, and then find that it was impossible.

Which brings us to the next reason writers self-publish. Time. Traditional publishing has always operated on a long timeline. But it seems to have gotten longer and longer for all but the most successful authors. Indie sf/fantasy author Andrea Host took that route after a publisher took ten years to consider her manuscript.

Sherwood and I chose to self-publish Hostage largely because of the issue of time. Stranger was published in November, three years after it was purchased by Viking. Though we turned in Hostage a year before Stranger came out, it wouldn't have been published until a minimum of two years after Stranger. Similar gaps between subsequent books would have been likely, no matter how fast the books were written. We felt that such long delays between books in a series are deadly for sales, and often lead to them getting canceled midstream.

Traditionally published writers who are prolific may put out books under pen names, or simply have manuscripts pile up. Prolific indie authors, especially those who write in popular genres like romance, can publish books as fast as they can write and edit them, and some parlay that into devoted audiences and large sales. Sherwood, who is a prolific writer, has self-published a number of books.

It turns out that readers have no qualms about reading more than one book by the same author in a year - far from it! They sign up for their favorite authors' mailing lists, get emailed when a new book is released, and automatically buy every one. Since indie authors tend to price books lower, at an average of $4.99, this is affordable for the readers and profitable for the writers. (On Amazon, the royalty from a $4.99 ebook is $3.50).

The ability to set the price is a huge benefit to indie authors, and was another factor in the decision to self-publish Hostage. Few readers will buy an e-book priced over $7.99 by an author who's not already one of their very favorites. Not having your debut novel sell at $10.99 as an e-book is very useful for indie authors.

They can also do things like set the first book in the series free, as I recently did for my own Prisoner (Werewolf Marines). I hope to lure new readers to the sequel, Partner, which will be released next week. "The first hit is free" is still an excellent marketing tactic. It has been used with great success by adventure sf author Lindsay Buroker and rule-breaking romance novelist Courtney Milan, among others.

But, of course, what you really want to read about is dinosaur sex. Such as Ravished by the Triceratops (Dinosaur Erotica). As Sherwood noted in her post on the history of publishing, sex sells and always has. Any kind of sex. Acrobatic sex. (Not worksafe). Gay sex. Tentacle sex. (Not worksafe). Incest. Oil Change 2: Racing Hearts (Mechaphilia Transformation Erotica)

A number of writers are doing quite well selling short erotic stories for between 99 cents and $2.99. The latter may seem outrageous if you think of it as the price of a short story. It's less so if you think of it as the price of an orgasm.

Writers have always been able to sell erotica. Indie publishing just makes it easier. And, as has always been the case, the writers and readers are in a constant battle with pearl-clutching moralists who really hate the idea of women enjoying sex. Even fictional sex. Oh, yes. As with romance (which nowadays often contains extremely explicit sex scenes) the majority of the writers and readers of indie erotica appear to be women. (Based on indie writers' forums, asking around, and personal knowledge - of the many erotica writers I know, about 70-80% are women.)

Periodically, Amazon and other vendors ban kinks deemed too shocking, so erotica writers need to stay on their toes. One month lactation kink may be banned, and the next month it's rape fantasy. Incest is banned, but pseudo-incest (step-relatives) is allowed. And so forth.

There are several ways that readers and writers can evade the misogynists and moralists to come to a mutually beneficial agreement. One is to set up their own company. Bestselling erotica author Selena Kitt created Excessica for exactly that reason. (Even outside of the erotica genre, some writers simply don't want to deal with Amazon or other middlemen. Writers' collectives like Book View Cafe enable writers to keep 95% of their profits in exchange for working to support the collective.)

But most indie writers do make most of their money on Amazon. To evade the censors, they use an array of code words, which their readers then learn. (All these code words are for use in the titles and blurbs; you can use the real words in the books themselves.) "Taboo" means pseudo-incest, since both that word and all family terms are banned in erotica. "Feeding" means lactation, since the word "milk" is banned in erotica. "Possession" or "captive" substitutes for the banned "slave." And so forth.

Marketing on Amazon is done largely by inputting keywords when uploading your book. Keywords and phrases are search terms readers use. For instance, "gay young adult novel" or "strong female characters" or "zombie steampunk." In erotica, you can use the real terms in keywords even if they're banned from blurbs. So if you go to Amazon and type in the banned word "orgy," you'll get books that used that as a keyword but have discreet titles like The Arrangement. (Or less discreet titles that at least don't include "orgy.")

Amazon is aware of this, of course. It seems that they're less interested in outright banning all erotica than in banning certain types and in keeping a virtual brown paper wrapper over graphic language visible in the storefront.

As for the dinosaur, minotaur, and Bigfoot sex, it's part of a subgenre called "monster sex," which is erotica about mythical beings. Bestiality is banned, so you can't write about sex with a bull. (Unless you're Ovid.) But you can write about sex with a minotaur.

Think erotica readers are freaks? Fantasies about strange sex are nothing new. Think of Pasiphae and her bull, or Zeus transforming into a swan or a shower of gold. Think of what you fantasize about when you're alone in bed. Yes, those fantasies. The weird, wild, strangely specific ones. Erotica isn't about realistic depictions of sex, it's about sexual fantasy. People don't pay $2.99 to fantasize about having safe, sane, consensual, protected sex with an ordinary person, in an ordinary way, at an average level of mutual satisfaction. That's what real life is for.

Then again, many of the authors are clearly just having fun with the whole thing, as are their readers. (Not worksafe, but hilarious. My favorite is the gay billionaire living jet plane.)

But the fun is also serious business. Lurk on indie erotica and romance forums, and you'll hear lots of stories about women and men, some of whom had never written before, writing themselves out of poverty and unemployment. Many indie authors fail. But many succeed. Erotica and romance are genres particularly known for enabling writers to support themselves and their families when they were about to despair. And they're doing it by providing their readers with the joy of sexual fantasy, at only $2.99 a pop.

That's what I call a happy ending.

Note: When commenting, please don't judge people for what they enjoy reading, even if you personally find it offensive or unappealing. What people like in fiction often has nothing to do with their real life opinions and preferences. Enjoying murder mysteries doesn't mean that you want to murder people, and enjoying fictional rape fantasies doesn't mean that you want to rape or be raped, or think that rape is okay. Etcetera.

136 Comments

1:

Mostly, the bits of erotica that show up in fiction are sufficient for me, but the idea that thinly disguised erotica lurks on the romance shelves at any given discount store is delicious.

2:

Judging people for what they enjoy reading; I don't judge based on the subject, but sometimes I can't help myself judging for just how it's written. Is that more acceptable?

I know it's personal preference and a question of taste and so on, but I made it only a couple of chapters through a Dan Brown novel before I couldn't read any more. His publishers know it's badly written tripe, but they know people will read it and like it, and they're in business to make money.

But then I find something self-published on Amazon and I read a little, and it's truly appallingly written (again, not the subject, which is sometimes something that a decent author could have made a good book out of); the writing. Sometimes, I think that if they'd just had an editor, even for a day, they could have turned it into something passable.

Anyway, the writing; far worse than anything Dan brown ever churned out, but it's got a bunch of five-star reviews and gushing praise, and I just can't help how I feel about the people writing those reviews. It's a kind of horror. Not contempt. But on the other hand, at least they are reading something and if they're enjoying it, then surely that's all good.

I don't tell them, though. I told someone once how bad Dan Brown novels are and she took it very personally.

3:

The other model I'm seeing, not necessarily in erotica, is the smack, smack, smack self-published novella. I've just finished one such series that actually blurred the UF and the erotica lines left, right and centre and was definitely not YA. The first "book" was free (and about 450 ePages long), the next 6 were a similar length, I think $3.99 (they were £2.49 for me in the UK) and came out every 2 months or so.

Could there have been fewer typos? Actually, I think there were 2 in the seven books, and I've read traditionally published books with more, so I'm not going to complain. Approximately 3,200 pages is a good solid trilogy published in a more standard way, actually it's long for a trilogy these days from most places (there are exceptions, but generally speaking). £15 for a trilogy isn't a bad deal. And if I hadn't liked the story I could have opted out at more frequent break points.

There's another author who writes various forms of pure erotica/porn whose stuff I mostly don't read. Her schtick is to release bonus chapters after receiving 10 5* reviews on Amazon. (I don't read it because her kinks aren't mine mostly rather than anything else, I came across her stuff because it popped up on BookBub.)

And while I certainly agree there needs to be more diversity in our stories, there are mainstream publishers that have them. Ilona Andrews are (it's a portmanteau name
for a husband and wife writing team) about to have a Chinese-American and a an African-American take over as Alphas of the pack. They also have a scatter of LBG characters through their stories, although their core characters are straight.

And lots of folks read and don't notice. Just read back to the howls of outrage when Lionsgate cast an African-American actress for Rue. Who is quite clearly identified as black (she can't be African-American in Panem after all) in the text...

4:

User DocSupreme at io9 talks about their experiences self-publishing erotica on Amazon here. Doc has some pretty good tips on the whole thing and seems to be doing well at it.

5:

The big problem I see with all of this is that it assumes that Amazon is an honest broker, and it is not.

6:

I don't have a problem with the second half of your statement, and I pretty much avoid shopping on Amazon. I'm not sure how "all of this" assumes Amazon is an honest broker though?

7:

Amazon looks very different from outside the USA.

So do some of the rivals, which dodge some of the other bad points about Amazon.

I'm not sure we need a detailed analysis of that here. It's down to things like cross-border transactions that are liable ro Income Tax.

8:

I suspect more than a few writers know very well that Amazon is going to screw them when they decide they can. But right now it's the biggest game in town for indies.

However, not trusting Amazon is why so many different models for buying are springing up, like Book View Cafe. They want to have a fallback in place if (when) Amazon screws them.

9:

And they're doing it by providing their readers with the joy of sexual fantasy, at only $2.99 a pop.

Isn't it the same thing porn actors do?

10:

It turns out that readers have no qualms about reading more than one book by the same author in a year - far from it!

Not all major publishers are asleep at the wheel, either. Tor in particular have lately begun to "surge" trilogy or series out as fast as they can -- their marketing cycle runs on a three-month treadmill, so they figure if they can launch book one in Q1, book two in Q2, and so on they can build momentum and keep the author (and series) visible on store bookshelves as well as in the ebook stores.

(This, incidentally, is giving me a bear of a headache this year. I'm due to hand in a novel for Ace in October, for publication in July 2016. Normally, this would be no big deal, but I've also got a book to do final edits on for Tor, which comes out in April 2016, and it's the first in a trilogy, so there'll be follow-on launches in August and October. Yes, the trilogy is mostly written. But all four of these books have to go through the copy edit and production/page proof cycle in roughly the same 8 month period!)

Finally, I'd noticed the dinosaur erotica. And sold one of my own.

11:

10. Tor has been releasing series quickly for a while - I think they did that with Elizabeth Bear's first novels, if I recall correctly. I'm guessing that's been working for them, since they still do it. I know I buy all the books as fast as I can read them if I like something, just as I do with a series that I discovered only after it was all released.

Dinosaur erotica turns up in some surprising places. Though I suppose, like the Spanish Inquisition, one never expects it.

- Rachel

12:

So... Culinary mystery. Crime and food, eh? Is that a genre ? And if so, could it be known as a who donut?

Right, I'll see myself out, then.

13:

Yes, there is a Culinary Mystery subgenre, usually with crime-solving chefs/caterers, and often including recipes in the books.

14:

You should check out John Layman & Rob Guillory's "Chew". The main character is a cibopathic ("gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats") detective.

15:

Hilarious! Sounds like you've hung around a lot of post-docs...

16:

Antonia T Tiger, #7: I'm not sure what you have in mind; Amazon evades taxes by using jurisdictions within the USA as well, and their treatment of workers is horrific. Amazon is nonetheless very popular in the USA.

Sherwood Smith, #8: "I suspect more than a few writers know very well that Amazon is going to screw them when they decide they can."

It already is screwing them, as far as I can tell.

The problem I see with the indies like BVC, which I know and like, is they lack the resources of something like Amazon; they could never have afforded the development of an e-reader and a supporting network, nor marketed it.

The net provides unparalleled opportunities for organizing cooperatively and we are still learning how to take advantage of them, and avoid the pitfalls. Ah, well. It is a very young technology. Provided it is not controlled out of existence, matters may improve.

17:

"I'm not sure what you have in mind; Amazon evades taxes by using jurisdictions within the USA...."

I have elsewhere seen the claim that if you are not a US citizen and pay income tax elsewhere, Amazon will charge you 30% tax for the IRS unless you have an arrangement with the IRS which requires Amazon's cooperation. Amazon will not cooperate. But if you can make that arrangement with another US publisher then you can apply it to Amazon and cut your US tax burden to 10% or less.

18:

I am not sure that you are wholly right on that, but that is the territory. Amazon, generally, arranges things to minimise sales tax liability (VAT in Europe is, from the PoV of the book reader, a sales tax). They also do things to minimise their corporate tax liability. From an e-book writing point of view, they are solely a US-based company, just like most of their ebook rivals, and many paper-based publishers.

The details get messy, and depend on which country normally taxes you. but the Amazon operation, KDP, will deduct income tax from their payments to you, according to US law. You need an ID code for US tax purposes. You then have to rely on procedures set out in a country-specific Tax Treaty, dealing with your own country's tax collection system, to lawfully avoid being charged two sets of tax on the same income.

It's the same for getting published by a US printed-book publisher, but, as with getting an agent, an offered contract opens a lot of doors.

I think Amazon has changed some details of all this since I first looked, but you still take all the risks, with a bigger bet from outside the USA.


There's still a lot to learn from the OP, and a lot else coming out in the comments, but that's why US-based solutions look a bit pointless to me.

19:

"I am not sure that you are wholly right on that"

I am not either. I got it from a source I consider generally reliable except that he believes in various conspiracy theories that I consider merely plausible and not proven false. But it was published 10 months ago, which is a long time, and I could have gotten things wrong myself.

And the devil is in the details. Amazon gives creators something like 70% of the profits, and they charge for costs. They charged 15 cents/megabyte for downloads. He was selling graphic novels of about 50 megabytes, resulting in a $7.50 expense per $8 sale. Subtract double taxation from that and there isn't much left. But for text files that expense is minimal.

20:

I've just finished a stint working for Amazon in their call centre over the Xmas and New Year period. The most "horrific" thing they did to me was require me to wear a silly Santa hat on Mayday calls on Xmas Day.

The pay, through an agency, is noticeably more than minimum wage which for call centre work is pretty rare. No pressure selling, no commission pay. We did get holiday pay though, about 10% on top of our hourly rate. Overtime was paid at time-and-a-half, holidays like Xmas Day were double-time. No off-the-clock work was expected or condoned. The office space was up to code, desk and seating ergonomics, lighting, heating, aircon etc., with clean toilets and kitchens and a "green room" for breaks, lunch etc. No chain hitch bolted to any of the desks I used.

I understand it's hard physical graft in the warehouses but they pay over minimum wage there too, overtime if you want it and no off-the-clock working either. "Horrific" is not the word I'd use for that work either.

21:

Thanks for that, and I'm pleased to confirm that those are sort of typical T&Cs, even with the comment about the warehouses. In the context of the warehouses, your job there is lifting stuff and possibly carrying it from A to B; How can a job like that not be physical unless 1 unit of stuff is heft enough to need a forklift?

22:

'Elf and Safety rules apply in spades in a place like an Amazon "Fulfillment Centre" aka warehouse/distribution centre. It's not the lifting as there are limits to that (25kg for a single person), it's the distances covered each day pushing a trolley to meet the order picking schedule. Ten km in an 8-hour day is not unusual from what I've heard. That doesn't sound much but it's stop-start and pushing a laden cart around a maze of storage cubes which is a lot more "work" than walking ten km in a straight line with a rucksack.

I've seen reports online by folks who have done this sort of seasonal work at Amazon. One major problem they report is the distance they have to cover back and forth between the rest areas for lunch and other breaks given the size of the floors and this eats into their scheduled down time. They don't usually complain about the physical side of things, they were aware what it would entail before they signed up for it. In the same way it was made quite plain to me that I'd be expected to work at least one of Xmas Day and New Year's Day at the call centre as that's why they were hiring a lot of seasonal staff.

There were press reports a while back about the high temperatures in some southern US fulfillment centres. I expect these were odd cases as a lot of the stock in a warehouse can be damaged by excessive heat -- food, pet food, that sort of thing and so allowing the temperatures to rise too high is going to cost them in wastage.

23:

I too have experience of working in Amazon. They are keen on health and safety, but then the UK is still a somewhat civilised country with laws and suchlike, so it isn't worth the hassle involved in breaking workers and recruiting a new one from the queues of starving folk out front.
On the other hand the wages are minimum wage and the only way to improve them is to do overtime and/ or night shift.

I have a long list of critiques and comments but that would make an entire blog post and also perhaps mean I break some of their draconian "tell anyone anything and we'll sue you to death" stuff that you have to sign in order to actually be employed there. Moreover they do some sort of background check and a pointless drugs test, so you can see a certain amount of fear/ desperation/ control freakery there already.

The work in many cases is physically demanding, which is okay for a while, but the bigger picture is that you can't run a society and economy with people working for 5 or 10 years or 15 at manual labour because oddly enough their joints and such are fucked up so they have a bad, expensive retirement.

24:

Here's an actual report on working in Amazon warehouses in the USA:
http://www.mcall.com/news/local/amazon/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917-story.html#page=1

It's much worse than in the UK, and shows what happens when corporations have greater freedom and power than their employees. The Tory wet dream in other words.

25:

Wrenching back to the original post—people else-net have commented on our tendencies—the possibilities of making oodles of boodle from ebook erotica isn't totally impossible. I have written such scenes. and even when the authorial lug'oles were emitting steam my typing seems to have been correctly spelt and usually grammatical.

But I am not sure that I could keep it up. And the research sources available to me have somewhat infelicitous aspects. There are, let me be clear, some seriously abusive sexual behaviour patterns floating around in porn. And I find myself wondering what an audience might think of my tastes.

But I can see how somebody might be lured into rather shocking patterns. I was, a long time ago, associating with the author of Trouble's Tales, and the character I was using in a multi-player on-line game makes an appearance. (That link is safe, and reasonably clear about the content.) And then there is Elf Sternberg.

I know about this sort of stuff, I am tempted by the intensity of the scenes. But, if nothing else, I am getting old.

26:

The trouble I have when I read "there are some seriously abusive sexual behaviour patterns floating around in porn" is I always wonder about the people that read them and how they take them.

I'm in a happily kinky RL relationship. I have limits that are certainly safe, sane and consensual. What my kinks are don't particularly matter but they're there. My partner shares them pretty closely from the flip side - we don't switch, we're pretty solidly 24/7 this way round.

There's a piece of porn from else-web that, without going into lurid details, smashes just about every one of my limits. It starts with hard limits for a lot of people like incest and consensual sex and so on. It's violently abusive on many levels, there is absolutely no way I want to be in the position of the person in the story and yet... OMG reading the story absolutely turns me on.

I have no idea if the person who wrote it has serious issues around being abusive and, frankly, criminal or just wild (and for my money extreme) fantasies but writes them in such a way that they produce really hot porn. There are stories by other authors on the same site that are much more in line with my kinks. Some of them are also hot, some are terrible.

But from the outside, a 24/7 kinky relationship can often look abusive. From the inside, it can be really intimate, caring and fulfilling. Writing about it is really weird and just hard to tell.

27:

Antonia, it's not necessary to watch porn movies as research in order to write sex scenes. I have written many sex scenes, and I don't watch porn. I just use my imagination, the same as if I was writing any other type of scene.

- Rachel

28:

I knew/realised all that (I've enough experience of running a pallet truck to know that I don't want to do that combined with say 20kg lift and shift for 8 working hours). What I was saying was that MZN warehousing isn't a bad job for warehousing.

29:

Writing (& editing) quality is a major potential problem with self-published books, but being able to read a few pages before buying can help this.

It's not a new problem though. I tried reading A Tale Of Two Cities earlier this year and couldn't get past the first four pages. I think Dickens was paid by the comma. Each one felt like stubbing my toe, hard, on a brick.

30:

It's been discussed in detail in the last month or 2, but the tl;dr version is that it's well known that most of Dickens' output was originally published as magazine serials and spun out as much as he could get away with.

31:

There are equally authors who go through the whole editing and publishing rigmarole
and still produce turgid prose that really needed to edited more heavily.

I won't name names because one of the worst offenders I can think of is alive and litigious but she seemed to let her success get to her head and her books got longer and longer and more and more in need of the editor's pencil to rip out the scenes of utter tedium that carried on for what seemed like 300 completely unnecessary pages in a tent.

Another bad one that had me hurling it literally across the room was the book that was talking about a genetically engineered plague. After the third organism the author put into the wrong fracking kingdom in two pages (viruses, bacteria and protozoa are that different so get them right when your character is meant to be a research scientist in the field please) and that was also from a reputable publisher. I can forgive implausible science for a decent story, basic science like that, not so much - he or she could have just looked it up on Wikipedia and got it right probably.

Editors and the like are more likely to reduce the number of errors but they're not a guarantee.

32:

A dirty little secret: science fiction editors don't generally have science degrees.

They're not uneducated or dumb, but their science background is generally high school level. So they read paragraphs in which the hero-scientist is TECHing the TECH and their eyes are tracking and looking for typos but they don't have the background to tell when the author is BULLSHITting the BULLSHIT or making plausible sense.

33:

I kind of know that - I just feel somewhere in the process between the author and the editor and whoever it ought to get caught. I try to be tolerant, and mistakes in process and fine detail I'm usually remarkably tolerant of. There are big mistakes in places I'm remarkably tolerant of if it's fun: I don't remember which movie but a werewolf movie where the werewolf pulls the helicopter out of the sky instead of pulling himself up the rope - it's dumb physics, but it's fun (although apparently I did wince the first time I saw it).

And a different author whose blog I also read goes to extraordinary lengths - when writing a scene about a trauma victim being treated for an amputation (by sword as it happens) posted on her blog for any readers who were paramedics, army battlefield medics or similar who would be willing to read over the scene and give pointers to make sure the way the paramedics handled it read right. They had 20 people who are all qualified that way volunteer to read it over.

It's not like it's that hard these days to find the information. Especially when it's simple, basic facts. And that one is particular bugbear of mine. Probably too long beating it (metaphorically at least) into students.

34:

Hey, a lot of you writers don't either. At least yours is mostly in the right area, but I've not seen you writing pharmacy-based fiction. Unless ... no, the Laundry is surely not going to be an extended hallucination.

Which is mostly what one should expect. Science Fiction is a branch of literature, and the first priority must be that it works as literature.

(OK, the first priority for a publisher must be that they think they can sell it. There are works where that very obviously trumps all other considerations - c.f. today's film release of a certain book that sold tens of millions, despite being pretty badly written by all accounts.)

If it does that, then the second priority may be scientific or historical or whatever accuracy. But many readers, myself included, will give all sorts of allowances to something if it's well written, whereas we'll drop an accurate but dull screed. For most people, the mistakes will be unobvious.

If the work in question has passed in front of some relevantly educated people, then great.

35:

(...c.f. today's film release of a certain book that sold tens of millions, despite being pretty badly written by all accounts.)


(It did spawn some very entertaining, well written reviews; I'd never pay money for the book, but I would have been willing to pony up a few pence for the reviews)

36:

I don't think the Laundry is; I'm less sure about some of the hard SF and near future Police procedurals! ;-)

37:

The best remedy for a genetically engineered plague is to reverse the polarity of its genome, whereupon it becomes its own cure. On a similar note I recently helped out one of my s/w engineering colleagues who was having a lot of trouble trying to write a program to merge two databases. I explained that all he had to do was overload the "+" operator and he could do it in one line...

38:

Presumably you're having fun with that, but reversing the polarity doesn't work with genomes, anymore than compiling a computer virus backwards gives you a tool for wiping out the virus. I'm only including this Dr. Buzzkill note to keep some impressionable young writer from including this idea in a story I read...

As for book errors--sigh. The annoying thing is that there's a surplus of highly trained people coming out of basically every science program in the world. I know the book business is running on bare bones and zombie revivification right now, but it kinda sucks that they can't find a few bucks to hire grad students or post-docs between postings to proof-read their SF and get rid of the continuity errors and howling screwups.

Still, Star Trek could never be bothered to check their own programs for continuity screwups within the Star Trek universe, so why would I expect publishing to care about real science, much less about making sense?

39:

Considering the impact on real science of such originally off-the-wall science scenarios as Star Trek, I'm totally cool with weird future science. Then again, there's quite a bit of confusion between science and technology, as though they're one and the same. So the lesson here for non-scientists is: you can have any gadget you can dream up, as long as you don't try to 'explain' how/why it works.

What really lags in quite a bit of SF that I've picked up by 'newer' authors is any understanding of basic psychology/neuroscience or sociology. C'mon, you're writing about people and their relationships! This type of subject matter knowledge is pretty fundamental, achievable, can boost your book sales and even win you awards. Just look at Scalzi, Sawyer.

40:

The biggest and most disappointing ending of a movie was the Bruce Willis Diehard movie where he lights a trail of kerosene in the snow, which then rushed down the runway, catches up with the airliner and blows it up as it takes to the air. FFS. That wouldn't even work with gunpowder.

41:

I've written stuff that involves 1930s aviation technology. I know the Zeppelin's lift more than they should, but I try not to be silly. And I know what a Coffman starter is. But I am trying to give an impression, rather as some of the authors of the time did. Neville Shute wrote a book called So Disdained which has aviation as a plot element. Post WW2 he wrote No Highway which is about airliners vanishing and the engineer who realises what was happening. I'm not 100% sure of the science and engineering in either, but Shute worked in the industry. Background or foreground, he's believable on the topic.

So my characters operate wireless sets and know Morse. They have to twiddle knobs and turn DF loops. They have at least slight knowledge of people such as Fairbairn, Sykes, and Applegate. (My grandfather farmed a few miles from Tom Wintringham and had met "Yank" Levy, but at the time of my stories they are in Spain.)

It's AH enough that I don't have to get things dead right, but I want then to be plausible.

42:

But it looked damn good.

43:

Most people don't even care even about the stuff they know to be totally bogus with about 2 seconds.

I don't know if the Six Million Dollar Man made it to the EU countries back in the 70s but it was on in the US for 3 or 4 years. (Longer than the original Star Trek.)

The premiss was that a jock/fight pilot/whatever was in a terrible accident and a secret government program replaced some of him with high tech. Artificial arm, leg, etc... I saw a couple of episodes and walked away.

I mean having a titanium based arm and leg allows you to lift a car? Right? Your spine will hold up.

Someone cuts the brake line on your car so you smash your artificial legs through the floor boards and stop the car with your feet. And your sneakers look brand new as you exit the car.

Good grief. But it was popular with a large number of people.

44:

Just this minute half watching new US TV series Allegiance the Russians placed a bug in a shirt button. The bug supposedly could record conversations in in EMF protected areas then burst transmit when out in the open. Oh, yeah it is entirely self contained. Battery and all.

Let's see maybe 5mm in diameter, 2mm thick. With 4 holes in it for thread. Yeah, right.

45:

And have you noticed how everyone in TV land is improbably good looking? Even the "ugly" people are ugly in a way that somehow seems attractive compared to those of us who have mugs jammed in the facial uncanny valley. *sigh*

TV sexes stuff up. The absolute max size would be a mobile phone, sans screen, with a reduced battery, etc... I'd guess it's out by no more than an order of magnitude. That's bang on for TV.

46:

I was really interested in the gender imbalance. Does the cost of tissues and the refractory period leave most men making a loss when writing romance? *innocent face*

47:

ARM demo'd a 3-chip stack - Cortex CPU, wireless interface, solar panel - at 1mm3 total size a year or so ago, so I would say that the button would be easy to do...

48:

It would be easy except for the battery. You'd probably need some sort of receiver nearby, ouside the EMF protected area, that contacts it and tells it when to send. If you get the receiver close enough then it doesn't have to send very loud.

And since the receiver doesn't have to be small or low-power, maybe it could recharge the button's battery too.

Maybe you could make the whole button the color of the solar panel and that would bring in some renewable energy too.

It's better when you don't have to assume some special secret technology. If your spies use technology the enemy doesn't know about, then the enemy will find out when the spies are caught. That's completely backward. You don't send your spies out with the stuff that their spies are trying to find out about.

49:

It may be worse than that. Samuel Delaney wrote that he could enjoy a particular sexual fantasy over and over, but once he wrote it down it lost all its effect for him and he had to come up with new ones for himself.

Author beware!

50:

Not seen the program but I could credit a voice recorder the size of a shirt button, including batteries -- no problem. The only implausible item is the ability to burst-transmit the take at any distance much larger than a few centimetres: that would take a bit more power than you can likely cram into a shirt-button battery along with all the other stuff.

But storage? Not an issue: I have a 128Gb micro-SDHC card smaller than a shirt button. Microphone? The shirt-button's surface is the membrane and the coil is a MEMS structure you'd need an optical microscope to see. Control circuitry? That micro-SDHC card has an embedded ARM microcontroller about 1 x 2mm; nothing implausible there.

51:

Were the transmission to be done over Bluetooth, then that wouldn't require much power. The bug could passively listen until it found itself within reach of a given Bluetooth ID (perhaps one of many) and could pack off as much data as it could while in range.

52:

Commercially available audio bugs are coin-sized already.

A shirt-button bug seems pretty small, but we're talking of something similar to an AG1 or AG3 battery. Dress shirts appear to often use an 8mm shank button—no holes through it—and if you're a state with the resources to make its own chips I doubt size is the issue. USB flash drives can be thumbnail-sized, and most of that is the USB connector.

And looking at the way a shirt is constructed, since the buttons as stitched to a double layer of fabric, you could have a very inconspicuous aerial as a thin wire between the layers. Or do you want something that is entirely within the button, so the thread can be cut or broken, and the button thrown away, leaving no trace to incriminate the spy?

The scenario might, for TV purposes, require an innocent carrier, who doesn't realise he is carrying the bug. "Bother," he says, "I need a new shirt button." And that's where your agent is at the kiosk in the mall, doing clothing repairs.

As Charlie has said, radio rather than NFC-level tech is a the big limit. That does fit with the unwitting carrier scenario. How about bugging the guy's washing machine? Screened casing, so it is hard to spot the connection happening, and then the data gets relayed though a powerline network, using a low speed protocol that doesn't generate an obvious signal.

It's a bit difficult to set up, but what if, instead of Smiley hunting a mole in the Circus, his own shirt buttons are the Mole?

53:

IIRC, the CIA was playing with button-sized audio bugs back in the 1970s. Even then, they were snarking that they were rapidly getting to the point where their secret radios would basically be batteries with radio circuits printed on them, under the wrapper. Circuit miniaturization happened a lot faster than battery technology improved.

Nowadays, I suspect that the spooks simply pwn cell phones and drop a program in them to collect whatever data they are after, or hack into the telecom system and grab the data they need, using a Man in the Middle attack. There's no point in using bespoke technology when commerce is supplying billions of perfectly adequate bugging systems already.

54:

Attacks on mobile phones are a rather obvious method.

It used to be than Bond tossed his hat onto the hat-stand and flirted with Moneypenny. Now she would pay more attention to putting his mobile phone in a soundproofed box before he saw M.

How many thrilling adventure plots would be short-circuited by mobile phones? Corporate security might block access at a critical moment.

55:

A lot of plots are killed by having mobile phones -- it's interesting to see how they work around them. Well, interesting when they work around them well.

The problem with cellphones as spying is that they do transmit, and you can either use a Faraday cage, or a signal detector and shoot anyone who has violated the "PLACE CELLPHONES IN STORAGE BINS BEFORE ENTERING SECURE AREA" sign.

I don't think you have to worry about transmission with the button recording device: if you could get the button on it, odds are pretty good you have access to get the button off later on.

56:

Given the number of peer-reviewed scientific papers in the
'respectable' journals that are self-evident crap, it's
hard to damn fiction authors and editors for being no better.
What irritates me is when their primary assumptions are
self-inconsistent or they obviously haven't done an hour's
research on their assumed milieu (or whatever).

The same thing applies to turgid prose. You can't expect
a complete absence (except in very short stories) but, when
the whole thing is turgid or the author is clearly writing
on autopilot, it's enough to put me off.

57:

Plot killing. Yes. Many/most plots to the 70s show the private eye show The Rockford Files fall apart with cell phones. Or even pagers.

As to secure areas a friend had to recently go buy a old fashioned watch and an actual CD player and get them approved for use in one of his work areas so he could keep up with time and listen to music. Nothing that could record in any fashion allowed in the area.

Back to the shirt button bug. Yes I know in theory if might work with a lot of footnotes but on this show:
1. Shirt wearer wasn't aware of button bug.
2. It was meant to be with him all day every day. 12 to 18 hours of battery life plus how to re-charge? I think all his shirts were bugged but I wasn't watching close enough to catch that bit of the plot.
3. The bad guys were not following him close and were not even sure where he'd be so they were acting as if range was in 500 to 1000 feet or so.
4. Buttons were small thin and with 4 thread holes. So maybe 4mm - 5mm by 1+mm with 1/2 of the area gone to the holes. So you'd need a custom made ring battery plus all the other circuits. I just don't see it unless you throw a huge budget at it. I mean really huge. And they were not made in advance they had to make them match the shirts the guy already had. Anyone but me ever noticed just how many variations there are of buttons on mens' shirts in the US? And I notice by feel when one doesn't match.

So given the above I just don't see it. And for dramatic effect they showed a close up of this translucent button so you could see the outlines of the circuits inside. Which of course would never be noticed by the high functioning Asperger's syndrome guy wearing the shirts.

This all gets back to when the CIA and equivalents had access to the best electronics. Now it's companies like Samsung and Apple. And Apple can't be bothered diverting resources to such. (There was a somewhat moderate stink raised when Apple bought the firm/people who do all of their in house CPU design now as it was a major supplier to the DOD and such for the US government toys and Apple said that side of the business was closing down.)

58:

Always worth being skeptical about whether the CIA doesn't have access to the best technology. Throughout their history, they've regularly had small, secret contracts with a wide variety of companies, from battery companies to electronics companies to Hollywood make-up effects artists (cf: Argo, although the real story was more interesting).

Basically, a CIA contract used to be a neat way for an engineering team to solve a weird problem or try out a bleeding edge technology that would show up in consumer technology 10 years later. For example, they were reportedly using CCD cameras about a decade before consumer models showed up.

My general take is that the intelligence community is using cell phone technology right now simply because they've got man in the middle capabilities out the wazoo. That's a lot easier than trying to physically get close to one of their targets.

It's also worth pointing out that, with some minor exceptions, techno-snooping rarely got them as much as did voluntary defectors from the other side, and the most useful technology was old-fashioned spy tech like dead drops, one-time pads, and really tiny cameras.

59:

"My general take is that the intelligence community is using cell phone technology right now simply because they've got man in the middle capabilities out the wazoo."

The US and allied intelligence communities have that. Who else does? If someone else tries to use it, can the US spooks tell what they are doing? Put a man in the middle of that too?

If I was with russian or chinese intelligence, I would be wary about using the spy techniques which the USA provided and maintained. I'd be cautious about geeks bearing gifts. Unless I was sure that my spies in NSA were telling the truth about the technology's limits.

60:

I was listening to Fahrenheit 451 last night, and noted the mention of ATM's, & "ear buds" (personalized radio receiver). Not bad for 1953.

Also those interested, may like to know I have a new rescue kitten. 8 weeks, and marginally psychotic.
Climbs stairs taller than her (as well as people).

photos available on www.computationaldemonology.co.uk/cat/cat.asp.

It is not easy to find a Norwegian Forrest rescue
Cat!

61:

If I was with russian or chinese intelligence, I would be wary about using the spy techniques which the USA provided and maintained. I'd be cautious about geeks bearing gifts. Unless I was sure that my spies in NSA were telling the truth about the technology's limits.

Tor?

62:

The problem with Tor is the exit nodes being owned

63:

Norwegian Forests' climb very well, even by cat standards - their "tumb" claw is further round on theor "hands" than is usual, giving them an almost-opposable grip.

"Hexadecimal" who died a few months ago aged 13 scared us when she got on to the roofs of several neighbouring houses - but she always got back down again.
One of my two "Locals" has a visitng NF, called "Harvey" (as in "wallbanger") - vast hairy grey-striped monster, as soft as butter ....

64:
I don't know if the Six Million Dollar Man made it to the EU countries back in the 70s but it was on in the US for 3 or 4 years. (Longer than the original Star Trek.)

The Six Million Dollar Man was quite big in the UK. One of the more ironic bits of trivia about it is that the real guy in the opening crash (Bruce Peterson) footage, while injured in the accident, lost an eye as a result of a secondary infection while in hospital. The orginal pilot movie was excellent, and Goldman is nicely twisted in it.Apparently there's a remake on the cards!

65:

Hi Greg,

Norwegian Forests' climb very well, even by cat standards - their "tumb" claw is further round on theor "hands" than is usual, giving them an almost-opposable grip.

Arrrrrrrrgggghhhhhh!! As soon as they master the tin opener we're all doomed. This one can certainly climb (mainly up me at the moment) and managed up and down the stairs on day 1 hour 1 which isn't bad for something twice the size of my glasses.

Sorry about Hex.

I well remember hanging out a window 6 floors up "rescuing" a previous cat, supported only by a reefer fiend when it decided jumping ledge to ledge was an excellent idea but jumping back was more trouble than screaming for rescue.

66:

Well, I loved the end of the "Vigilance" arc in "Person of Interest", enough said about my background paranoia with online civil rights? ;)

67:

Still given that TOR was created by the US military and DARPA many (even in the white hat side of the US side of things) can't help but wonder how much was designed in on the sly.

68:

All state spying/counterespionage agencies have a conflict of interest: prioritize defense of the nation or offense against enemies? In the NSA or GCHQ this comes out as INFOSEC or SIGINT. It's a particularly acute dilemma when your country sets international standards which other folks use. If you compromise your own COMMSEC your enemies' communications will be accessible to your eavesdropping -- but yours might be vulnerable to theirs.

There's a sliding scale here. We could design arbitrarily secure networking protocols, in which case the NSA's ability to do its core job would be massively degraded. But if we did that, the people the NSA is supposed to protect would be considerably safer (against the usual stuff we've gotten used to). So which is more important, the NSA's espionage mission, or national security in general (but with the potential for embarrassing enemy plans to go undetected from time to time)?

TOR was created as I understand it at the behest of the State Department to provide a tool for foreign dissidents to communicate with the outside world without fear of eavesdropping by repressive governments. (It was seen as an offensive tool against enemies, hence it received backing and development.) Of course, the street finds its own use for technology, and a bunch of folks the State Department had no idea about glommed onto TOR with shrieks of glee. So then NSA went to work on it, doing what they do to weaken it. Upshot? Sure, they wound up Silk Road and a bunch of paedophiles -- but they've also mortally injured the ability of dissidents in Iran, Russia, China, and IS-occupied areas to communicate (because once word of the NSA's attack on TOR gets out, (a) people with a lot at risk will be afraid to use it, and (b) the offensive cyberwar people working for Iran, Russia, China and IS will also attack the problem).

A lot of our issues with internet security are down to the NSA bureancracy arrogantly assuming that they're smarter than everyone else. This is not true: they just spend a lot more time in committee meetings.

(And there's a moral here for a future Laundry story.)

69:
This is not true: they just spend a lot more time in committee meetings.

As I frequently say in Meetings, "there's no work getting done around here, and we're going to have a meeting every morning, until I find out why.". Alas, no one seems to have got the joke yet...

Speaking of which are Ericsson in bed with the NSA &c? We've recently been taken over by them and any gossip welcome. My last employer, BT, were of course hand in glove with them, though they used to set the MOD room in BT Tower on fire reasonably frequently. Which was hard for the fire brigade to get into.

When it happened, you could reliably retire to the pub, and not be missed. Best one is https://plus.google.com/109707712157462512152/about?hl=en IMO.

Speaking of erotica, which I wasn't, but am - I think it's rarely good in SF. Some of Richard Morgan's stuff is quite good, and I suspect written from personal preference in life[1]. It could be though, in as much as I think good Erotica that is good, that is arousing, should essentially be slightly surreal fairy tales for adults, and should be understood as such. Confusing real life with a good fairy tale (so to speak) rarely ends well for anyone participating, not least because fairy stories tend to terminate in someones blood.

Not many authors have managed to pull it off, and fewer film directors. I was rather taken with nine and a half weeks, while Ken Russells' Crimes of Passion was marred only by the pedestrian denouement and the superficial examination of Joanna Crane/China Blue's "real self". Kathleen Turner more than makes up for that. Good erotic stories should have "dream consistency", i.e. when experienced they should seem credible, even though later they may not stand up to forensic critical examination. Creating this impression in the mind of the reader, is, in many senses, hard.

It is, after all, the experience that counts not ones subsequent analysis of it. Though the advent of the Kindle & similar, does make it possible to read The Story of O on the 06:04 from Stevenage to Kings X, without curious glances. ( Not that I'm advertising, or anything.).

In a way good SF is very similar to good erotica, IMO. they're both about willing suspension of disbelief...? But the scenario must be at least marginally credible and address your desires more or less directly.


[1].. if anyone writes Quellcrist Falconer's "Things I Should Have Learnt by Now, Volume II," I will help with the background for Campaign Diaries, given a BFG9000, or a bit of gumption.

70:

Yes. I know about what you've said. And you've got the general direction right but some of the details wrong. But close enough.

Some of the NSA associated white hats are really teed off about back doors to the extent they exist. If they do. Especially in the encryption algorithms. Lots of non management folks who know the details aren't talking. For lots of reasons.

71:

Should be fairly trivial to spot richer than average mathematicians, given the internet &c, presumably...

73:

Well, on the theme of spying and NSA, this is a timely article. The source is a Russian outfit.


(Reuters) - The U.S. National Security Agency has figured out how to hide spying software deep within hard drives made by Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba and other top manufacturers, giving the agency the means to eavesdrop on the majority of the world's computers, according to cyber researchers and former operatives.


http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/16/us-usa-cyberspying-idUSKBN0LK1QV20150216

74:

From the article.
"There is zero chance that someone could rewrite the [hard drive] operating system using public information," Raiu said.

I don't know about that. There's a big business modifying auto controls without source code.

Back in the say I did a lot of object code patching without source code. On telecomm controllers where the vendor didn't supply what we needed. (Yes it was much more simple then.)

But I know folks who could do such things. One can tell you what compiler generated code after a brief look at it. He has spent years writing patch systems for code that runs inside of control systems.

75:

"There is zero chance that someone could rewrite the [hard drive] operating system using public information," Raiu said.

This dude installed Linux on a hard drive's embedded microcontroller.

And this guy programmed his PC keyboard to play snakes.

And here's a fucking CABLE with an Arm core and 256Mb of RAM.

So, um, it's not just the NSA who can do shit like this. Because these days it's cheaper to throw an ARM core at a problem than design some dedicated solid-state logic. So most of our peripherals actually have brains. And brains are there to be washed.

76:

For instance, one might do a web search for "Hawking, Stephen". ;-)

77:

What it comes down to is that hardly anyone writes machine code any more, but there are so many people out there writing code that "hardly anyone" is a lot of people.

(Yes, I know there is a difference between "machine code" and "assembler".)

And there are some famous guys doing it. Steve Gibson, for one, and even if that page is a bit of self-puffery it's a good starting point for Assembler code in Windows.

The account of hacking a hard drive: from that it clearly doesn't need anything special that only governments have access to. Guessing slightly, there's an overlap with services offering data recovery. The tools the guy used are likely made for that use.

Are the NSA so reckless as to get some special code into the drive at the factory? Or do they just arrange to get informed of the source code, which would be useful for forensic examination of drives seized from criminal operations. If there are hidden functions, out of the factory, the guy shows they can't stay hidden, and if you were some other country the article shows that it wouldn't be impossible to change the firmware to a known-good codebase. It would be expensive, but possible. There are probably cheaper ways to keep a computer secure, such as not attaching it to the internet.

It's like data-recovery: way more expensive than replacing a drive before it breaks. And RAID boxes are not so expensive for NAS.

Oh boy, how about this for a cyberwar attack? Put a bomb in the firmware that deletes every sector as it is read. You need to pick your targets, but you could trash an IP-block. Your computer boots up and loads the OS, but it doesn't boot again: goodbye Tehran University. (That's a good enough threat for a series of 24, better than a hidden nuke.)

(There is probably an NSA briefing paper on this, which would be classified but in the Public Domain. Anyway, copyright doesn't protect ideas, but I hereby grant permission to all and sundry to use that idea in fiction or journalism. A copy of the product would be appreciated.)

78:

Worse, if they cross-breed with Birmans ...
Who are very intelligent, even for cats.
The open manipulation of the mere human's whims & desires is quite extraordinary.
( Current master of household is a 7-yr old Birman tom, "Ratatosk" - UNSPEAKABLY cute, butter wouldn't melt, etc ... until you see his squirrel-count. )

80:

There are probably cheaper ways to keep a computer secure, such as not attaching it to the internet.

This does get slightly annoying when companies like Mickeyshaft decide that 'all computers are connected to the interweb at all times, so they will be able to "phone home" to verify that $software is legal, and to supply web-based "help".'

81:

You mean like Adobe, Apple, and all kinds of second tier companies. It has gotten so bad that it's hard to admin systems without an always on internet connection. Especially since there are times where you really don't want auto updates to take off.

82:

The account of hacking a hard drive: from that it clearly doesn't need anything special that only governments have access to. ...

Are the NSA so reckless as to get some special code into the drive at the factory? Or do they just arrange to get informed of the source code, which would be useful for forensic examination of drives seized from criminal operations. If there are hidden functions, out of the factory, the guy shows they can't stay hidden, and if you were some other country the article shows that it wouldn't be impossible to change the firmware to a known-good codebase. It would be expensive, but possible.

From my time working with firmware level code and not any explicit knowledge of current drive controllers I be willing to bet serious money that all drive controllers have "back doors" err maintenance command sequences that allow for all kinds of interesting tricks to be done. Now you might have to ground a pin or some such for the commands to become "live" but most of that can be found via some pattern searches of the firmware raw code.

Unlike in the 70s and 80s when every controller was almost custom designed from 7400 level chips today it just isn't cost effective. So EVERYONE uses a CPU you can buy in mass quantities with lots of documentation available.

Now I know the above isn't trivial but for some of us who thought this was "neat" (in my younger days) it was something to be done like climbing the mountain. Because it's there.

Now today I'm sure these controllers have many megs of code not the 2K or so we saw back when I was in college. And likely a modded variation of Linux or similar running as a control OS. But again, it's no longer feasible (profitable) to roll your own so there's a large base of knowledge floating around which means you are never starting from scratch. Where I wrote my own disassembler back in the day today you can like find 1 or 100 for the CPU in question and get to pick the one that best fits your needs. Plus firmware flashers/patchers/whatever.

83:

Except the malware under discussion is specifically designed to infect USB keys to carry information out of air-gapped networks and instructions in.

84:

Cheers for that; it would appear that we are not paranoid enough!

85:

We won't begin to resolve these issues until we go back and redesign with utter simplicity. Every bell or whistle you don't actually need is an exploit waiting to happen.

For things that need to be interoperable, it will require ruthless conformance to standards. We will have to pour new hardware into old standards, with a significant delay while new simple standards evolve. That will probably slow the rate of hardware innovation, but we can afford it.

At the internet level, something like 95% of all webpages will have to be redesigned or discarded. But webpages that use javascript or flash or even css are not investments, they are liabilities. Sunk costs.

There is no excuse for a drive controller with megs of code, except that it's cheaper to add code than to remove code.

Boot systems and OSes shouldn't have pretty splash screens, because if it gets hard to hide malware other ways, someone will figure out how to put a bytecode interpreter in some corner of the screen and run a big program that's steganized into low bits of the picture.

If we reduce the size of the codebase to the point that everything can get the sort of attention that only cryptographic systems have now, we might have a decent chance.

87:

From the non-techie POV, is this how AI will emerge? And, how do you stop it if everyone's pushing for the IOT?

88:

Oh yes. 20 years ago I was running an RDBMS and table data, reports etc in 1MB RAM. I was backing up on a 5.25" double density floppy. I don't want to think about how much memory Access 2010 would waste on tables, structure, queries and reports.

89:

You're proposing a solution that requires an Internet Dictator, the discarding of >30 years of sunk costs, the summary execution of Intel, the reversing of the architecture decision made at the very foundation of computing - which implies the discarding of every interpreted programming language. OS installation would probably require special equipment. Computer support goes from something your teenage niece does to a locksmith-equivalent profession.

It's not exactly a straightforward proposition.

90:

Actually there is.

Costs, ease of use, and reliability. (Really)

Moving from ASICs to code greatly reduces costs and time to implement new drive recording technologies. And moving from way back when stupid interfaces to smarter ones (SATA or SCSI) makes drives cheaper and easier to integrate into systems.

Your solution is to go back to computers no one can afford. And you had to take classes to learn how to run your Windows XT.

91:

"Moving from ASICs to code greatly reduces costs and time to implement new drive recording technologies."

Yes, but an insecure implementation of a new drive recording technology is unaffordable.

I mean, if all the world's hackers take up a collection and pay you to use it, you still can't afford it.

So let's wait and use the new drive recording technology after we are sure that it is bug-free, after the code is simplified to the point that there is no room at all for exploits.

Let me put it this way -- if your car had 5 megabytes of code to control your brakes, and every few days or weeks they wanted you to download a patch to fix errors in that code, would you drive that car?


"And moving from way back when stupid interfaces to smarter ones (SATA or SCSI) makes drives cheaper and easier to integrate into systems."

A smart interface is fine provided it's simple enough to program reasonably simply. Because the more code, the more bugs. Thinking we could make things more complicated and that would make them cheaper and easier to integrate is how we got where we are today.

"Your solution is to go back to computers no one can afford. And you had to take classes to learn how to run your Windows XT."

No, I want to go forward to simpler systems. Windows was an improvement over a CLI because you didn't have to memorize commands and their spellings. You could look for commands in tedious drop-down windows and you'd gradually memorize where to look, and which names did what. To get that improvement took a giant Rube Goldberg complexity, because people didn't really know how to do it. Now we have a much better idea how to do that sort of thing. We shouldn't go back, and we shouldn't stay where we are, and we can't afford to keep complexifying.

My old father finally got mostly used to Windows XT. Then he bought a new computer with Windows 8 and he hasn't begun to figure it out. If you have to introduce something new (and we do have to) at least try to make it worth learning.

92:

"You're proposing a solution that requires an Internet Dictator, the discarding of >30 years of sunk costs, the summary execution of Intel ...."

No, it doesn't require nearly all that, except for the >30 years of sunk costs which are now worth less than nothing.

My first demand is a boot rom and kernel that can't be tampered with except when I physically push a button to let the existing code update itself. What we have now is like the horror story where your wife might have been taken over by a demon which has access to all her memories. How can you tell? You can't. Until you wake up at 2 AM and she's just completed the spell and her eyes are glowing and she has the fiendish grin and the story's over. You can't even tell whether your computer is yours after you reformat the hard drive and reinstall the boot flash from backup and reload your OS from your obsolete DVDs. I say this is unacceptable.

Your OS including your believed-secure web browser is in ROM that can be changed only when you physically push that button. People can still do exploits in data, including run interpreted languages, but your OS will tell you what it sees and not what somebody else's program wants it to tell you. When it boots it doesn't run anything but itself until you tell it to.

This is not an unreasonable demand.

Beyond that, we need everything else as simple as we can get it, because we are basicly bad at complexity.

93:

Beyond that, we need everything else as simple as we can get it, because we are basicly bad at complexity.

That's a good idea if security is priority #1. Look up the MirageOS unikernel for example to see how researchers are building vastly simplified computer systems with much smaller attack surfaces and high assurance properties. For most users security is never priority #1. Convenience, more features, and low cost usually rank higher than security when it comes to purchasing decisions, regardless of what people might say on questionnaires.

What I find really puzzling is that MirageOS and other high-assurance software efforts appear to receive little backing/adoption from government agencies in charge of classified data. Even the NSA uses Windows and Microsoft Office internally. Many of the Snowden leaks started life as PowerPoint presentations. WTF. These agencies have large, stable budgets and security concerns that go beyond 99.9% of the commercial world. Why are they buying commercial off-the-shelf product that has proven woefully insecure time and again, instead of funding prizes or contracts to develop slimmed/hardened/verified versions of the most-often-used computing applications?

Academic research on secure systems is far ahead of typical commercial practice, largely because most customers care less about security than about other things. Government agencies that handle classified data all the time could be the customers to bootstrap a market for high-security software, since the general business world won't supply those customers. "PDF viewer that can never execute arbitrary code on your computer" is not a demand for magic, just something that business customers are not going to pay for any time soon. The incentives should be properly aligned in classified government agencies to buy secure software and fund its development if sufficiently secure software does not yet exist. But the military and intelligence branches are still using the exploited-over-and-over products from Adobe...

94:

Just look at this terrifying list of bugs in Acrobat Reader, and how many of them could have enabled code execution: http://www.cvedetails.com/vulnerability-list/vendor_id-53/product_id-497/Adobe-Acrobat-Reader.html

The initial PDF standard was released in 1993. It officially became an open standard in 2008. Where is the PDF reader that has turned the standard or a useful subset of it into formalized specifications and generated provably secure application code from the formal spec? *sound of crickets chirping*

I guess we'd better expect another decade or two of classified computer systems getting compromised every time a spear-phished executive looks at an emailed PDF.

95:

"For most users security is never priority #1. Convenience, more features, and low cost usually rank higher than security when it comes to purchasing decisions, regardless of what people might say on questionnaires."

Sure. It's like "Hey, this computer has way more processing power than I need, so I don't care if somebody else has control of it as long as they let me use 10% or so of it every now and then when I really want to. I don't really have any secrets I care about."

But it just takes one single 9/11-type incident and public opinion would reverse 180 degrees.

Or maybe they'd go back to business as usual, apart from deciding who to invade.

96:

Err...Wot can I say to that?

“This is not an unreasonable demand.”???

Good Grief!

It does rather depend on what you mean by, " an unreasonable demand "

" Beyond that, we need everything else as simple as we can get it, because we are basicly bad at complexity. "

It’s worse than that I fear. There are people who aren’t all that ‘BAD? ‘At complexity because where it occurs they just ignore it and ‘Delegate ‘to the nearest convenient sacrificial victim.

This reminds me of the old “Lone Ranger " joke. You know the one? It’s the joke wherein the Ranger and his Faithful Indian Companion and Sidekick Tonto are Absolutely Surrounded by Attacking Indians and down to their last...whatever...and The Ranger Says 'So it’s just We Two against the Bad Guys !.. “And The Faithful Companion says ..." Who do you mean 'WE ' White Man?

All that the executives of any given IT using organisation – or their Political Masters in Election Real Soon Now land - require is a backdoor through which they can escape leaving the Tech people to take the Flack behind them if and When Things Go Wrong. And THINGS will go wrong won’t they?

You may fret over the content and quality of the Tech/coding/whatever as much as you like but the reality is that the Execs who make the Decisions in any given organisation... often liberal arts graduates who have spent their careers learning how to manipulate People and/in Committee Meetings that you couldn’t be bothered to attend or were puzzled by when you were forced to make an appearance at the same..will neither know nor care about your wish for Perfectionism in Coding let alone care about your wish to rewrite the history of Techidom as it applies to IT. They just want a simple facile but plausible “solution “to a given problem that will see them cheerfully on their way up the Exec Ladder and onwards to their next job...the next Very Well Paid Job.

You have noticed The Banking Crises of the last/present and ongoing Grate Recession and beyond haven’t you?

You have noticed how few Ever So Senior Execs have suffered any serious consequences as a result of the Great Meltdown?


The Executives Question - should said Exec be sufficiently concerned to express it to you - would be...on a Two Year Event Horizon, at Maximum, why should I give a Rats Arse about this ....12j199''' #'; 1122neigj-rpl .. Irritatingly Techy Persons Noise of Which you speak/Squeak?

97:

" I guess we'd better expect another decade or two of classified computer systems getting compromised every time a spear-phished executive looks at an emailed PDF."


This, here after linked, Dilbert cartoon is a pleasant prospect, but alas it isn't all that likely in reality because a Real Boss would have delegated a subordinate to do the annoying Tech Stuff whilst he was away attending a very Important Meeting with other Pointy Haired Bosses...

http://dilbert.com/strip/2008-12-07

98:

Re: "Even the NSA uses Windows and Microsoft Office internally. Many of the Snowden leaks started life as PowerPoint presentations. WTF. These agencies have large, stable budgets and security concerns that go beyond 99.9% of the commercial world. Why are they buying commercial off-the-shelf product that has proven woefully insecure time and again, instead of funding prizes or contracts to develop slimmed/hardened/verified versions of the most-often-used computing applications?"

Because governments have to interface/work with suppliers, i.e., the rest of the world, and the rest of the world was using Windows. Government is a major/key client within almost every industry/sector.

99:

Even the NSA uses Windows and Microsoft Office internally. Many of the Snowden leaks started life as PowerPoint presentations. WTF. These agencies have large, stable budgets and security concerns that go beyond 99.9% of the commercial world. Why are they buying commercial off-the-shelf product that has proven woefully insecure time and again, instead of funding prizes or contracts to develop slimmed/hardened/verified versions of the most-often-used computing applications?

Governments reduced to the pernicious concept of "lowest price contracting" ages ago. Windows and Microsoft Office fitted the bill wonderfully. The NSA and the like did it too, even when they really shouldn't. While it possibly affected more people, there's a possibly apocryphal comment about astronauts turning to each other just before lift-off. "You do realise were on top of a huge bomb built by the lowest bidding tender don't you?"

100:

Because governments have to interface/work with suppliers, i.e., the rest of the world, and the rest of the world was using Windows. Government is a major/key client within almost every industry/sector.

Yes, government is a major/key client within almost every industry sector. Meaning that government customers could drive the development of security features and not just content themselves with picking from what's on the commercial menu already. Government customers for military hardware don't preemptively limit themselves to whatever companies already sell for the civilian market. I don't see why government customers who need computer security should limit themselves to systems that are barely secure enough to not send corporate customers fleeing.

Governments need email, web browsers, databases, spreadsheets, tools for creating and reading documents, and a whole lot more. That doesn't mean they always need to use Windows, Microsoft Office, or Acrobat Reader. Actually Windows security itself has improved a lot in the last 10 years. It's rare now to see a remote vulnerability reported that attacks the OS directly. Now most code execution vulnerabilities usually start with exploiting an application like a PDF viewer, Web browser, or Web browser plugin. Governments could do quite a bit to protect against watering hole attacks and spear phishing attacks just by funding development of secure, formally verified Web browsers and viewers for a few of the most common data formats like PDF. They could close a lot of attack vectors without the disruption of completely abandoning Windows just by enabling safe document viewing.

There are already standards like S/MIME for securing and authenticating email, but the tools are poor. Government customers are again big enough to drive more usable tools to enable routinely secured email. The US government funds and has historically funded quite a lot of software development that didn't have a commercial market to begin with. After government incubates the technology it often takes on a commercial life of its own but it wasn't born in private industry (e.g. the early development of numerically controlled machine tools, numerical simulation of fluid dynamics, symbolic computer algebra systems...) It could be done again to improve computer security. I don't know why it isn't being done.

101:

You are assuming that a secure system as you described is what Governments want. Those of us who are more cynical recognise that governments want insecure systems which they can attack and subvert more than security for their ganeral systems, especially if the insecurity is engineered by that government. Governments will have highly secure systems for really important duties e.g. manual typewriters and carbon paper.

102:

That's the worrying part.

It looks as if the hard drive firmware is unprotected. If there was a jumper that needed shorting before the memory could be modified, that would stop a lot of possible malware attacks.

I am now worrying about my computer's BIOS chip too.

103:

The last company making manual typewriters has closed down.

104:
My first demand is a boot rom and kernel that can't be tampered with except when I physically push a button to let the existing code update itself.
AKA the destruction of the von Neumann architecture, rendering all interpreted programming languages verboten (bye Perl, Python, MATLAB, Ruby, Postscript etc.) and likely killing Intel stone dead. Likely goodbye VMs too, so throw in the death of cloud computing.


Two questions related to your faith in physical controls: how many buttons on your computer are directly connected to the functions they control, and how many signal the software to do the thing pushing the button accomplishes?

How are you going to prevent phishing and "hold your computer's update button to get $cool_thing" scams, in a world where the ILOVEYOU worm infected tens of millions?

105:

I think that's an urban legend.

http://gawker.com/5795649/relax-theyre-still-making-typewriters

Anyway, back in the day when the purpose of computers was to generate paper I think IBM made buckets of money by selling Tempest certified Selectric typewriters.

And I know that a significant amount of profits at Wang Labs came from their Tempest certified word processors. They seemed to be the only company willing to make devices to the certification and thus got to charge ridiculous prices for the equipment.

106:

If physical access were required, nobody would end up with updated firmware. And yes, end users do update their firmware -- it's especially common for SSDs, these days.

You can't, in this case, rely on cryptographic security, because we're talking about the NSA (and other state agencies) -- the most that does is add the manufacturer as a target, if they haven't already handed over the private keys.

107:

AKA the destruction of the von Neumann architecture, rendering all interpreted programming languages verboten (bye Perl, Python, MATLAB, Ruby, Postscript etc.) and likely killing Intel stone dead. Likely goodbye VMs too, so throw in the death of cloud computing.

No, he's not calling for anything that extreme. Just that you should be able to block writes to the OS boot image and device firmware with hard wired switches. It's not that crazy. It would be like booting from a read-only optical disk, except to enable updates you flip a switch instead of swap out disks. I seem to remember memory cards that came with write protect switches.

108:
Your OS including your believed-secure web browser is in ROM that can be changed only when you physically push that button.

That's executable and non-executable memory right there (has to be or else you just move the attack to rewriting in RAM before execution), which is breaking the von Neumann architecture.

109:

There is nothing preventing an interpreted language on a non-Von Neumann architecture -- why do you think that is?

A just-in-time compiled environment would have some problems there, but even that's not even particularly difficult.

You are never going back to a non-von Neumann architecture -- ever. The architectural change allowed for code to be loaded, rather than hard-wired by toggling switches or otherwise rewriting circuitry. People who say that we should drop von Neumann are either ignorant, or, when they're sane, they're talking about going back to something closer to the split I&D design.

Being unable to modify code is useful and common; being able to prevent something from making a page executable is also useful, although it has significant downsides.

But the kernel (or the equivalent) is either going to be able to turn data memory into executable memory, or you've lost the ability to be a general-purpose computer.

110:
There is nothing preventing an interpreted language on a non-Von Neumann architecture -- why do you think that is?
Sorry, you're right - I was thinking JIT and got very confused.
111:

OGH mentioned in one of his talks (IIRC) that in MP:TNG they had specifically avoided Von Neumann architecture (as well as hardening all their kit against EMP and other known problems) because they had our time line as a horrible example and needed to defend their systems against it.

I remember read only storage: the kind you had to update with a card punch and physically open up the machine in order to update the microcode. Also write protected disk drives (the size of washing machines) where some Herbert on a school visit flicked the switch from R/W to R/O on a paging volume - noticed extremely quickly, I might add.

The recent revelations have made me wonder just how deep the penetration of business systems by the U.S. intelligence agencies actually goes - can you trust IBM's hardware random number generators, for instance, or are they using Dual_EC_DRBG inside the sealed (and screened) hardware? I'm sure the encrypted tape drives also encrypt the session key with a government key as stash that somewhere on each tape - if only because dual keys are a business requirement (so you can exchange tapes with your business partners) so why not three (or four...) - and as for the on-line AES datalink encryption boxes, those have simply got to be backdoored somehow or they wouldn't be on the market.

I seem to be getting progressively more cynical as I get older, but am I cynical enough, that's the question.

112:

"Being unable to modify code is useful and common; being able to prevent something from making a page executable is also useful, although it has significant downsides."

Yes.

"But the kernel (or the equivalent) is either going to be able to turn data memory into executable memory, or you've lost the ability to be a general-purpose computer."

My first thought is to severely limit who can turn the executable memory that the OS uses into data memory, and make it possible to change the stored OS, BIOS, boot package, etc only when a human being consciously chooses to.

My second thought is that we might as well sell a whole lot of systems that are not general-purpose computers. One of the special-purpose devices on sale would include a database, spreadsheet, word processor, image manipulator, browser, and a few other things. It would fill all the current needs for a standard office machine. If you want to add new software to it, go ahead -- but you have to follow the directions and you should be aware of the risks.

Kind of like automobiles. We don't need every car to be an ATV.

As anonemouse pointed out we can't stop ignorant people from stooging for scams, but we can require an act of stupidity, and not have it be the default condition that if you go to the wrong website or use the wrong thumb drive or install the wrong factory-fresh hard drive then you're screwed and there's nothing you can do about it.

"If physical access were required, nobody would end up with updated firmware."

If getting new capabilities into your firmware means that your computer belongs to somebody else, you probably can't afford it. On the other hand, if you need new firmware to block exploits, you can't afford not to. In that case you have two choices. Either update your firmware with physical access, or accept that you're screwed.

Ideally the firmware will be small and simple enough that it won't contain exploitable opportunities and then you can get by without updating it.

One possible method to persuade people to update their firmware to prevent one or more exploits is to actually use the exploit to spread something that will inconvenience them until they update. It could be argued that this is unethical, but isn't it better to get hit by something obvious that does not in fact damage or expose your data, rather than something sneaky made by somebody truly evil?

113:

I have been using a computer since Radio Shack brought out the TRS-80.

I cannot recall ever having to modify the BIOS or the hard drive firmware. Why must it be so easy to do that it can be done by malicious software?

Yes, I know about the arrogance of government agencies. They want to be able to read everybody's data because somebody might be thinking of the children in the wrong way.

114:

Here you go.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BIOS

"

Every BIOS implementation is specifically designed to work with a particular computer or motherboard model, by interfacing with various devices that make up the complementary system chipset. Originally, BIOS firmware was stored in a ROM chip on the PC motherboard; in modern computer systems, the BIOS contents are stored on flash memory so it can be rewritten without removing the chip from the motherboard. This allows easy updates to the BIOS firmware so new features can be added or bugs can be fixed, but it also creates a possibility for the computer to become infected with BIOS rootkits.
"

It seemed like an improvement to be able to change it without replacing the chip. They weren't thinking about sabotage at the time.

I say, add a fraction of a penny to the motherboard cost and require somebody to push a key on the motherboard if they want to change their BIOS. Not, of course, a key on your keyboard which goes through various corruptible software processes.

If you aren't willing to learn how to do that, maybe your BIOS doesn't really need to be updated.

115:

There's a balance in all these things.

While I don't think your position is unreasonable, I wonder how many people would.

Because if you do that to all devices you're essentially insisting that every smartphone and every tablet have an extra button on it that has to be pressed for some (but not all - but hey, lets make it easy, make it for all) software patches.

And, ultimately, lets be honest, it won't work. The reason "ILOVEYOU" was successful was because it seemed plausible to lots of people that someone in their mailing list who had already been infected would send them an attachment called ILOVEYOU so they clicked on it. There was a fake malware for something, I don't remember the exact name but it was a java debugger manager that had a teddybear as an icon. The email told you how to find it and that you must delete it now! The programme it told you to delete was harmless, the "mal" was the time you spent sending it, finding the programme and either deleting it or checking it wasn't harmful, and if you were duped sending it on to people and so on.

If you fit a human operated switch "Yes really update my bios" people who issue malware that requires this will just issue it with instructions to press the switch. A higher proportion of people, for a while, will say "hang on, wtf, no way" and within 5 years or so, people will be so used to pressing the switch for legitimate updates, they'll get a malware that has the right look and they'll press the switch and boom...

116:
My first demand is a boot rom and kernel that can't be tampered with except when I physically push a button to let the existing code update itself.

So, like in Glasshouse?

117:

Let me put it this way -- if your car had 5 megabytes of code to control your brakes, and every few days or weeks they wanted you to download a patch to fix errors in that code, would you drive that car?

We are already there. Tesla has planned updates to their firmware once every 3 months or so. I'm sure the other all electric or hybrid cars now are similar. Or will be soon. If you want the range to get better they have to tweak the algorithms based on usage models.

And brakes on these cars are not a pedal pushing a piston pushing liquid to a cylinder pushing a pad to a rotor. They are a petal controlling a position sensor and one or more computers deciding how to implement that position based on a lot of other factors.

Airplanes are similar.

And THIS is the future or do you want to go back to manually adjusted carburetors and such?

I don't. A relative born in the 20s used to say "The best thing about the good old days is they are GONE."

118:

There is no excuse for a drive controller with megs of code, except that it's cheaper to add code than to remove code.

I think you're missing the point. The reason these controllers have so much code is that it is no longer a part of the OS drivers. Or going further back in time no longer a part of the application.

Way back when if you got a drive error the application had to decide what to do. And disk drives (for a long time now) have soft errors all over them. So the logic is moved into the firmware and it has a pool of "spare" blocks and will move data from areas with soft errors appearing to this pool. Plus all kinds of other things. To be honest I'd rather this be in the firmware than in the OS drivers or worse yet applications. A lot of virus code used to be possible due to all of this low level stuff that was exposed to applications. And as a side effect it forced the drive manufacturers to up their game and put out drives with very solid firmware. Recalling a few million drives over an "oops" did not make for long careers.

119:

If you aren't willing to learn how to do that, maybe your BIOS doesn't really need to be updated.

Well, quite. After all, Windows 95 works, and is perfectly adequate - why bother upgrading? Anything? Why worry about reverse compatibility, just program up every new tool so that it works with every possible release of every version of every operating system. You won't be able to share files - because every tool will have to understand the file format of every single one of its predecessors, and heaven forbid that anyone on an "old" machine should ever want to read a file generated on a "new" machine.

Talk about barriers to entry... pretty soon, you'll only be able to use the toolset delivered along with the physical box; and only a subset of boxes will be able to interchange useful data.

There's a huge difference between formal release versions of safety-critical or mission-critical code (BT,DT) and pushing out a patch to make things "a bit easier to use / a bit less buggy". Think of the ability to modify libraries, plugins, and firmware.

And even then, having added all the awkwardness to billions of devices, you're still vulnerable to someone compromising the BIOS image in the factory, or while the PC is en route to the end user. Or if you're a really high-value target, by someone breaking in and doing a physical modification.

Sorry, for me it just fails the credibility test.

To continue, remember when they started designing CPUs that had a special privilege bit in the instruction set? It allowed a level of physical control over the security of the CPU and its processes. Come to think of it, the guys working on our embedded ARM implementation burned an awful lot of design effort on their "trust zone" stuff, with good reason...

120:

Talk about barriers to entry... pretty soon, you'll only be able to use the toolset delivered along with the physical box; and only a subset of boxes will be able to interchange useful data.

Ah, computing in the 70s and prior. Wasn't it fun. NOT.

And to be honest it lasted well into the 80s and a bit of the 90s. People thinking it was great to used modded floppy controller so they could store 50% more data. And selling it to a business.

To continue, remember when they started designing CPUs that had a special privilege bit in the instruction set? It allowed a level of physical control over the security of the CPU and its processes. Come to think of it, the guys working on our embedded ARM implementation burned an awful lot of design effort on their "trust zone" stuff, with good reason...

A lot of this comes from each wave of computing seeming to ignore the sins of the past. Mainframes -> Minicomputers -> Microprocessors -> handhelds.... A whole lot of "we know better than those old farts" has taken place over the years.

121:

People thinking it was great to used modded floppy controller so they could store 50% more data. And selling it to a business.
One place I had owned one of these machines with a 720kB 5.25" drive, and it was great, right up until someone wanted to put its backup data on a different computer!

123:

"If you fit a human operated switch "Yes really update my bios" people who issue malware that requires this will just issue it with instructions to press the switch. A higher proportion of people, for a while, will say "hang on, wtf, no way" and within 5 years or so, people will be so used to pressing the switch for legitimate updates, they'll get a malware that has the right look and they'll press the switch and boom..."

So we can't solve the problem that way because if human beings are in the loop they will fail.

But anything that's done entirely by software can be spoofed by malicious software.

So barring some solution I haven't heard of, we can limp along, gettng increasinglyt dependent on an unreliable system until it suffers catastrophic failure.

Catastrophic failure.

So far, no one has done anything important to our computer network because nobody who has that ability wants to. But it's inevitable that at some point somebody will cause irreversible damage to hundreds of millions of computers in north america and europe.

124:

"A lot of this comes from each wave of computing seeming to ignore the sins of the past. Mainframes -> Minicomputers -> Microprocessors -> handhelds.... A whole lot of "we know better than those old farts" has taken place over the years."

The connectivity has given us new problems that were not so important in the past. We aren't just repeating the old mistakes, we're making brand new ones.

So -- your computer is somebody else's slave, it works full-time for them when you aren't using it, and part-time for them when you are. That isn't so bad for you when it still does what you want it to.

Your computer tells them everything you do. But mostly they aren't interested and you don't care. That isn't so bad.

There has never yet been a significant exploit of the computer system. But there will be.

What we are doing now is not viable. We need an alternative. My suggestion to put humans in the loop I now see would not work. But without that, even if you are quite knowledgeable about how things work, you still have no chance to avoid being part of the problem. Without that there is absolutely nothing you can do to protect your own personal systems.

I think there's nothing. Maybe I'm wrong. I have a couple of friends who refuse to run javascript, or flash, or pdf. One of them uses a slow connection which makes him an unattractive target. He uses linux on ancient hardware that nobody would particularly want to own. They both use Lynx. They both say that websites which have actual data show up that way, because the stuff that the marketing guys have pawed over won't work. Neither of them are confident that their systems belong to them.

They're both in europe and they're both named Anton. That's probably a coincidence.

125:

"They're both in europe and they're both named Anton"

Sounds like they've got the key :)

126:

OGH mentioned in one of his talks (IIRC) that in MP:TNG they had specifically avoided Von Neumann architecture (as well as hardening all their kit against EMP and other known problems) because they had our time line as a horrible example and needed to defend their systems against it.

Yup. They went for a Harvard architecture -- physically separate memory for data and code -- and a capabilities-based OS for controlling what processes are allowed to write to the code segments. That's on their time-sharing systems, early instances of which resemble a MULTICS service as originally envisaged (with 8-bit remote terminals with floppy disk drives and a single-tasking CP/M like OS to kickstart their personal computing revolution) ...

127:

It's things like that which make me think that you write books for people like me. I understand it but my sis wouldn't find it much less comprehensible if it was written in Mandarin!

128:

Not necessarily.

If your smartphone/PC etc. or even someone's at the NSA gets horribly corrupted, then it's not actually a catastrophe. It may be a nightmare for you, it might be a national security headache, but it's not a catastrophe from an IT POV.

Most of the computers that are very networked and might cause a catastrophic failure aren't staffed by people who don't know what they're doing and will "push the button" without knowing what's going on. Because the internet is widely networked, if one or two, or one or two hundred nodes go down it's not a catastrophe. (There may be places isolated behind a failed node that disagree with that but it's not a global meltdown.) Most of these places also have redundancy locally (like a backup server/router etc.) and a (group of) sysadmin(s) or similar who sits there 24/7 and baby it along and make sure it keeps on working.

There are places like nuclear power stations etc. where it would be a nightmare, but again you hope they employ someone with a clue and don't just randomly update, install patches etc. With or without such a hard-wired switch.

129:

"Most of the computers that are very networked and might cause a catastrophic failure aren't staffed by people who don't know what they're doing and will "push the button" without knowing what's going on."

So you figure if *their* stuff required a manual override then we could weather it?

If in some hour 300 million computers in europe and north america turned into hunks of metal that no data could ever be recovered from, it wouldn't be so bad because they would be the least important 300 million computers?

So we could sell good hardware to the pros, and today's junk to the plebes, and it would work out?

130:

I remember a story from the Iraq war.

The US was handily winning in the first few days, and Iraqi generals started getting messages printed out by their computer printers. Of course the printers were on their Microsoft local networks, so they were easy to get to.

The CIA told each of them that the war was going well and they were going to lose. If he kept his men in barracks the barracks would not be bombed and his men would survive, and after the war he would get a pension. The printer gave him a contract to sign.

That must have been pretty convincing. When the enemy breaks into your own network to offer you your own generous personal surrender terms, probably they're going to win. (I don't know of any examples where the barracks were bombed anyway and I wouldn't know how to find out.)

Somebody dropped the ball somewhere along the line, and a year later the US-run administration, staffed largely by political appointees and their relatives was still getting annoyed by Iraqi generals demanding their pensions. "No. You don't get a pension. You fought for Saddam. You lost. We don't give pensions to the enemy."

That was a simple trick. Now it turns out your hard drive and your backup and all your thumb drives are infected too, and there's nothing you can do about it.

People are talking like somehow this is acceptable. Any alternative would be too inconvenient.

Is that because they think the US government is ahead, and they trust the US government? If it was the chinese or the russians who were ahead, would it be acceptable them?

131:

No.

I think you're assuming everyone installs everything that comes by. I'm not quite sure what the most successful malware we've seen was, but ILOVEYOU has to be way up there. But like biological viruses part of its success was it actually didn't do much - it sent crapped on your image files and sent itself to your email lists. Today that would be nastier because we've got more of our images on our computers but still not catastrophic for most of us - our computers would still work for example. Ebola has been all over the news for months. While I have every sympathy for the people it killed, infected and those around it, and those scared they're going to catch it, more people have caught the common cold in most months for the last 2 or three months in just Britain than have been infected with Ebola world wide in the last 2 years. In terms of severity there is no comparison of course, but in terms of numbers there's no comparison the other way.

If a virus spreads that bricks your tablet - lets say it bricks all iOS devices - then if Apple issued it, they're going to spend their warchest in a hurry. It should be harder for anyone except Apple to do because of their walled garden approach. On Android devices, fragmentation may or may not protect you.

On a desktop or laptop, there's still different chip sets, different OSes etc. So killing them all... tricky. And like a lot of biological viruses there are issues about kill viruses. If I get a virus that gets in and blows up my computer, it has to spread to everyone first because once my computer is bricked, I'm unplugging it and getting a new one that is, hopefully, uninfected.

The chances of someone bricking all the computers in the world overnight... maybe I'm just being unduly complacent. It's not my area of expertise. But I think it's much more the area of paranoid nightmares.

132:

"... maybe I'm just being unduly complacent. It's not my area of expertise. But I think it's much more the area of paranoid nightmares."

If either of us had that expertise we could not legally discuss it. So it is not possible for us to know what's possible.

What we have seen from NSA has been very polite. They have made viruses that erase themselves after awhile if they find they have not reached the specific targets they are aimed at. Etc. They have been designed to do a particular task and then eliminate themselves. It's taken a long time for some of them to be discovered at all, and surely some that they have been using have not yet been discovered.

Most of what NSA does, somebody else could do given the knowledge and a moderately large budget. They have copies of everything that goes through a US hub, which others can't duplicate easily. They can tamper with the US mail. They can sabotage hardware built in the USA and maybe some other hardware. But stuff that gets done with viruses, anybody can do if they learn how.

Anybody who knows how can reprogram your hard drive to hold their code and not tell you or anybody that it's there. They can run their code when your computer starts, as soon as the booting computer asks for some code from the hard disk. The code they run can send anything from your disk over the internet to them, if there's anything on it they want. They can encrypt your disk so nobody but them can get anything from it, or they can erase everything that isn't theirs -- if they want to. When they want to.

There has never been a significant sabotage event. Never. Not yet. I think it's primarily because nobody who knows how to do it, wants to do it. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's no way it could happen. If I knew what I was talking about I would not be allowed to talk about it.

How much should north americans be ready to bet that I'm wrong?

134:

See, that's the worst you can come up with and it only affected an estimated 60 million computers, in an economy that didn't that much depend on them.

Trivial, compared to a big attack.

135:

a decent overview of 'warhol worm' etc (i.e., own the net in 15 mins)

http://www.icir.org/vern/papers/cdc-usenix-sec02/

136:

Why need a worm? The Internet Census compromised 1.2 million embedded devices (routers etc.) by trying to log in to them with default or empty credentials.

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This page contains a single entry by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown published on February 11, 2015 9:00 AM.

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