Writing Tip – Computers Made Easy Part I

I’m starting up a short series on computers and how to write about them. Today’s entry is on hacking.

Strange characters and phrases danced across Max’s dark sunglasses. The Nomad was finally talking to him. “All I have to do now is crack the NVRAM and I’ll have access to the CPU,” he said.

“I’ll write up GUI interface in Visual Basic to track the IP Address.” Jolene was ecstatic. All their work had finally paid off. Soon, the Brotherhood of the Sane would finally be held accountable for their crimes.

“Good idea. If we can get the IP Address we can find out who it’s registered to then it’s just a matter of sending the package and we’ll have them.”

The package was a Trojan Horse, a virus designed to first prevent the computer from being shut down then it would strike. The payload would embed itself in the DRAM and the Brotherhood would never be able to get it out.

Jolene’s fingers tapped a staccato beat while Max slowly wormed his way into the bridge. The CPU was a hair’s breadth from him. All their secrets, all the murders, all the bribery, every last dirty deed the Brotherhood had done would soon be spread all over the world. Once he hit the CPU, Max would find the spreadsheet and crack the database. He grinned for the first time in years. Crack that CPU, find the spreadsheet on it, and then the world would know Max Power was an innocent man.

“The program’s running,” Jolene said. “It’s tracking. Southwestern United States. New Mexico. Farmington.”

“I should have figured they’d be hiding out in Farmington,” Max muttered.

“Up on Harper Hill. It’s a trailer park!” Jolene cried.

“Get me a name and an address.”

“Hold… Got it! Harry Harrison,” Jolene said.

“Harry the Sheep Smuggler. I should have guessed.” Max’s finger poised over the Enter button, ready to unleash Hell on Harry.

“4077 Troy King Road, number 446.”

Max’s finger jabbed down on the Enter key. The screen erupted in burst of colors and the harrowing sounds of a server dying screeched from his speakers. “We got him.” Max was breathless. “We finally got him.”

whatamilookingat

I was introducing my son to an important piece of Americana earlier this week, a little show called The X-Files. You might have heard of it. It details the adventures of spooky man and redhead and their ongoing attempts to find the truth.

One of the episodes we watched was Ghost in the Machine. It’s one of the less popular episodes because it doesn’t feature aliens or monsters. I think my son was somewhat disappointed that it doesn’t feature ghosts, either. Rather, it was Mulder and Scully versus a sentient computer. It featured an unholy mishmash of techno-babble and barely understandable references to the Internet.

The-X-Files-T-1920x1080_v2

Unfortunately, mainstream entertainment is rife with this kind of thing. Take a bunch of cool-sounding acronyms, add a hip character who can crack the IRS dBase, and make hacking computers look like child’s play. Some readers or viewers will appreciate the amount of effort that went into looking up the cool-sounding acronyms, others will roll around on the floor laughing at the endless technical mistakes.

Take the scene at the beginning of this post. There’s not a single thing in there that makes a lick of sense, but it certainly sounds nifty. Max sounds like the kind of guy that could hack your computer from a payphone using only an old electric typewriter and a modified See ‘N’ Say.

“The farmer hacks your mainframe while the pig knocks up your RAM.” The kind of stuff they make movies about.

Fun movie, great soundtrack, total bs technology
Fun movie, great soundtrack, total bs technology

In 1993, the year Ghost in the Machine aired, the average person on the street probably didn’t realize that “cracking the CPU” isn’t something that really happens and even great programmers would have a bear of a time writing a virus to delete an artificial intelligence in a couple hours. From a prison cell.

But, heck. it’s entertainment, right? So what if The X-Files cut a few corners or didn’t research every little bit? In 1993 it wasn’t quite the problem it is now; computers were just starting to make their way into the average home and most people didn’t know what a URL is. Besides, The X-Files totally nailed that alien thing.

It’s 2016 now and there is less of an excuse for not doing a bit of research. That line about “Writing a GUI interface in Visual Basic to track the IP Address” is near verbatim from a CSI episode that aired sometime around 2008. It’s complete nonsense to anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with computer and network technologies.

A GUI is a graphical user interface – a fancy term for the cool pictures you see on your screen. So, a GUI interface is a graphical user interface interface. GUI’s are usually defined by the Operating System (think Windows, OSX, or Linux), so you don’t actually write the GUI, you use the existing GUI to display information. And you definitely don’t write one in Visual Basic. Visual Basic (VB) is a programming language, but you can’t use it to define the GUI.

An IP Address is a series of numbers that tell your computer how to get to another computer. 10.0.0.1 is a pretty common one. Computers love IP addresses because they tell the computers where each other are. They’re not physical addresses, though, and there’s usually no way to tie a physical address to an IP Address. They’re also not assigned to people. In fact, chances are high that you’re not using the same IP Address today that you were using yesterday. A background service assigns your computer an IP Address in most cases and you may or may not even know it.

If you want to track an IP Address, use something like tracert, or a visual trace route tool. There’s no need to write a graphical user interface interface to do it. Even then, you won’t get much of an address. On a good day, you’ll get the city the IP address is currently being used in. On a bad day, you’ll get the country. You certainly won’t get a street address.

The really disappointing thing about hacking in the real world is the complete lack of exciting things and flashing lights. Most hacking consists of sitting in a hotel room and running automated penetration tools to look for open ports or unpatched operating systems. When those don’t work, hackers will spend some time on the phone simply asking questions. You’d be amazed at how much information people will give you if you important and sincere. Successfully loading a virus on someone’s computer won’t give you a splash of color and explosions on your screen. At the most, you’ll likely get a message that says “Done.”

So, what does this mean to writers? Well, if you’re going to write about technology and hacking, it behooves you to do a bit of research. The Internet is full of information about computers and hacking. There are technology groups that are usually happy to help. Even the IT staff at your job would probably be willing to give you a few pointers.

Take a little bit of time and you’ll save a lot of face later on. If you don’t know the difference between NVRAM and DRAM, it’s easy enough to look it up (BTW, see if you can guess what’s wrong with my usages in the scene above). Go a step beyond what CSI and The X-Files did to get a bit more of an insider look at hacking computers and it will make your story much better. If you want, drop me a line. I might be able to help out.

Next week, we’ll look at how to avoid letting technology totally take over the story, because the flip side to not knowing enough is knowing too much.

Do you have any favorite completely messed up technology stories?

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9 thoughts on “Writing Tip – Computers Made Easy Part I

  1. An excellent post as always Eric, and timely for me. In my primary WIP I have a character who needs access to the files on another character’s laptop. Instead of using techno-babble which I don’t understand well enough, I alluded to the ‘hacker’ having been a programmer and successfully wrote codes to gain access and information.
    The most techno I got were the words, ‘hacker’, ‘programmer’, ‘laptop’, ‘password’ and ‘Inbox’. My only use of an abbreviation was IP address, which was left unexplained.
    I’ve since amended the chapter to have the ‘hacker’ accessing the other character’s house and downloading the entire contents of the machine onto a portable memory stick. The password was available because the laptop owner wasn’t savvy about not using relative’s names etc.
    For my story the techno aspect is incidental, so it’s better for me to mention it in passing to allow the story to flow.
    This is a superb article to illustrate your point about ‘knowledge’ or lack of it in a particular field. It spells out for me in a big way to mention, but not detail something which might bog me down in the writing, and worse, a reader with the story.
    Once again, a great piece, and thanks for saving me a couple of days of study. 🙂

    1. Tom, glad it came in handy. It’s real easy to go over the top with the details and I’ve noticed most people put their eyes on screen saver mode when computer terms start flying around. I had a section in Henchmen where they were talking about hacking a place and I had to pull way back on the details after it was pointed out that it got overwhelming.

  2. A great tutorial, especially for a guy like me who writes letters in longhand, on paper, with a fountain pen… thanks dude.

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