Computers Made Easy Part II – Tech Overload

“The first step is spoofing the IP Address,” Max Power said. His eyes were hidden by the ever-present dark glasses. “That’s the easy part.”

Jolene nodded in agreement. “We’ve got access to their router. Well, it’s more technically a Layer 3 switch than a traditional router, so we’ve got their MAC address tables and IP routing tables.”

“Exactly,” Max said. He ran a hand through his puffy black hair. When he was tired or stressed, his Irish brogue came through. Right now Jolene had to focus to follow him. “So we intercept their packets, strip the header information off and replace it with our own custom information. They’ll keep trying to get the web server and that good old Apache box we’ve got running in the closet will pick up everything they’re sending.”

“How do you plan to get around the SSL encryption?”

“Aye, SSL. That wee beastie would be a tough nut. Asymmetric key encryption is notoriously difficult to break.”

Jolene’s eyes twinkled. Any time he referred to something as a wee beastie, it meant he respected it enough to find a way around it. “You got to their admin, did’t you?”

“That lass was helpless in the face of my Irish accent. Curled her toes, it did. While she slept it off, I found my way into her laptop. She’d set up her Remote Desktop Protocol client to remember her password. I didn’t have to crack a thing, just walked right onto the server desktop and pulled the certificate straight out of Internet Information Services.”

“You know, most people practice social engineering over the phone,” Jolene said.

“My way is much more fun for everyone involved. Besides, I bought her breakfast.”

“Okay, so we can spoof the IP addresses, we can circumvent the SSL cryptography. What’s left?”

Max nodded. This was always the hardest part. Anyone with a lick of experience at computer security would be wary of it, but it was the key part. So far they hadn’t shown a lot of technical prowess, so he felt his plan had a good chance of working. “I’ve got a port scanner ready to go. When the port is open we’re going in. We’ve got an ActiveX control running on the website that should open TCP Port 3389.”

“You’re going to open up their Remote Desktop Protocol services? You’re going straight for the gusto.”

“Right. Even after they shut down their browser, we’ll be able to sneak right in while no one’s looking. A little fiddling with the NTFS security and we’ll be golden.'”

whatamilookingat

I’m not really a techno-thriller writer. I spend most of my day hammering out code and fixing the odd server issue. When I sit down to write, I want to explore something I don’t do all the time. That said, Henchmen had a few moments that might have been over-the-top technobabble. And that’s the problem with writing what you know: it’s way too easy to add information that no one cares about.

My technobabble was a lot worse in the original cut of Henchmen. The few spots that were computer-oriented got a little too far into the weeds. I passed those sections off to my wife and her eyes rolled back into her head when she read those parts.

Lesson learned: Most people put their eyes on screensaver when computer terms start flying around. Stick to the fun stuff like fighting monsters and secret government guys.

HenchmenJessicaComicAd1

There are some stories that make excellent use of computer terminology and practices. Most of them don’t handle it all that well. Look back to the last Computers Made Easy post for an example that CSI pulled. That would be the bit about writing a GUI in Visual Basic to track an IP Address.

Andrew Updegrove’s Alexandria Project does a good job with computers and network technology. He kept it realistic enough to be, well, realistic, but it was exciting because he didn’t get bogged down in the details. Even a geek like me – who likes to look for technical problems – had trouble finding any and his technical descriptions didn’t interrupt the flow of the story.

Now, I get it: details are key to building an immersive story. But with computers it’s really easy to go way over the top or just start making things up. A lot of people have heard phrases like GUI, IP Address, and some may even have heard of Visual Basic. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to use those terms.

Take the introductory dialogue between Max Power (the man whose name you want to touch) and Jolene (whose name is significantly less interesting). It’s got a whack of technobabble in it. Layer 3 switch. MAC Address. SSL Encryption. Trojan Horse, TCP Ports, Remote Desktop Protocol. Blah, blah, blah, blah.

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

If you’re into those things, it makes for an interesting read, but the extraneous details don’t add anything to the narrative. Do we really need to know what port RDP runs on? Exactly how important is it that they have access to a layer 3 switch instead of a traditional router? I put those things in there because they popped into my head, but they’re burdensome. Technically, the information is mostly accurate, it’s just that it’s an info-dump of things most readers aren’t going to care about or even understand.

What about explaining all the terminology and the reasons why those things are important? Well, I’m not sure that’s a good idea, either. Then your techno-thriller goes from exciting to about as interesting as reading stereo instructions. And explaining what each piece does and why it’s important would add about a hundred pages to the book.

Remember: that’s a hundred pages that very few people will want to read.

bored

Just like adding in incorrect details about technology can make you look like a lazy writer, adding too much can pull the reader right out of the story. If you’re working on something technical, hand it off to a non-technical person and see if they still follow the story or if they get lost in all the acronyms.

Remember the cardinal rule of writing: Don’t confuse the reader. Give them what they need to understand the story and ditch the rest. Let the story be lean and mean and you can focus on the plot and the characters without worrying as much about replacing TCP headers.

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