Hacking is Rampant

The internet is both a wonder and a nightmare. It is hard enough to avoid getting compromised by a hacking or phishing attack yourself but now it has gotten even harder to render assistance to relatives that are less computer savvy than you are. The problem is that there are so many different ways that hackers can attack and if you take someone like me who uses Apple computers at home and Windows computers in a corporate environment at work, it is difficult to know what to do when someone has been hacked. Especially when they have been hacked with a phishing attack.

Phishing is a type of hacking where the attacker is able to get your computer to put up a message that looks like a legitimate error message. Then, they give you a phone number to call. It is supposedly a phone number for a legitimate company but in actuality it is the phone number of the hackers that are mounting the attack. They then take you through the process of “fixing” the problem over the phone. What they are actually doing is getting you to make your computer vulnerable to a more serious attack that will either allow them access to any sensitive information that you have stored on the computer or else possibly lock your data so that you can’t access it until you pay them a ransom.

When we detect a hack at work, we are told to immediately call the security team to contain it. When I got a virus on my Windows machine a long time ago, I wiped the disk and reinstalled the operating system. That was Windows 95 so you can tell how long ago it was. It is one of the reasons that I use Apple computers. They aren’t totally immune to hacking attacks but there are far fewer of them on Macs than there are on PCs.

I am supposed to be the computer expert. It is frustrating when I have to say, “I don’t know what to do about your problem.” My wife said I should have reassured her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. I understand the sentiment but I didn’t think of it in that fashion. I was worried about telling her not to worry and it turning out that there was a reason for her to worry.

Someone more familiar with the setup of her computer is having a look at it. I am hoping that it was a tempest in a teapot and that there is nothing irreparably wrong with her computer. If not. I hope she hasn’t lost anything important. I feel so helpless.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Work Hard and Improve

Today I watched an interview with Stephen Moffat. He was telling the interviewer that he was rubbish. I’m not British so I may be missing some subtle shading of that phrase but I took it to be him being sincerely self deprecating. He then went on to say that the one thing that he would take credit for is working hard. He said he had to work all that much harder to overcome the fact that he was rubbish.

Creativity is a strange quality of human intelligence. It can’t be forced but it can be courted. You can’t sit around and wait for the muse to inspire you. Instead, you have to sit down and write as if you already were inspired. You have to fake it until you make it. If you are putting words on the page you are a lot more likely to write something good than you are just staring at the page. Writing is hard. You have to do whatever is necessary to get something down for a first draft. Then you read what you’ve written and decide if there is anything there that you can salvage. If so, you pull it out and work on it. If not, you just keep on writing some more.

Creativity is more about taking a different perspective on things and using your judgement to recognize when you have written something worth improving upon. The old adage that enough monkeys typing randomly on typewriters will eventually write a Shakespearean play isn’t too far from the truth. When you sit down to write, you aren’t typing randomly but otherwise the chances of any given session producing something worth pursuing is a long shot. You can improve your odds by paying attention though.

Notice the things that work for you. Perhaps you work better while listening to music. Perhaps you prefer silence or the television playing in the background. I have found that whatever I have supplying the soundtrack to my writing process is better if it isn’t too interesting. It needs to sink beneath the wave of words flowing from my subconscious onto the page.

I also find that I have times when I have lots of ideas and other times when I can’t think of a single one. So, I try and capture the ideas on lists when they are plentiful so that I can browse through them when they aren’t. Often the act of browsing those lists will inspire more new ideas to be added to the list. Remember, you have two jobs. Principally to keep a stream of words flowing onto the page but secondarily to keep the pump primed by capturing new ideas and stockpiling them.

So, the answer to the perennial question about where a writer gets their ideas, they get them from the notes that they have so laboriously taken when they were inspired. Or as Robert Heinlein, a favorite Science Fiction writer of mine, once said, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch sometimes pronounced TANSTAAFL.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Questions of a Thousand Dreams

Good questions make good writers. Some of the best questions start with “What if…”. I have managed to keep a draft on track by asking myself a few choice questions like that. I won’t say that the answers were always entirely satisfactory but they kept the story moving forward. One of the challenges of writing by the seat of one’s pants is that you generate a lot of extraneous side stories that don’t contribute to the development of the main plot.

The conventional wisdom among writers is that you have to weed out the extraneous threads when you edit. The key here is figuring out what the main story is that you are telling. I do appreciate the archival features of modern writing tools. It allows you to save all the iterations that you go through on the way to writing your masterpiece. If you delete something critical, you can easily retrieve it. You can also try various alternative sequences and versions to see how they read.

All of these tools aren’t worth a whit if you don’t have the judgement to figure out what is good and what isn’t.  This is the foundation of the advice that writers must read a lot. It is how you acquire the experience that feeds your judgement. Thus, it is good to read widely, even beyond the margins of your chosen genre. The primary criteria should be quality writing and insight into human nature. I suspect the two are subtly related.

The other big question that challenges every writer is deciding when a piece is done. There are numerous objective criteria, such as number of words, structural completeness, and carefully listening to the comments of respected reviewers. The latter takes practice. It is hard to hear people say critical things about your creation, no matter how deserved the comments may be. But the writer’s response to such criticism must be kept simple. They must thank their critics. No excuses should be made. Discussion is not event required unless it is to ask questions in order to better understand the comments.

It is incredibly difficult to listen to criticism without becoming defensive. It is hard enough to expose your most sensitive inner thoughts to others but then to accept their comments without response is harder still. It is absolutely necessary though. If you value honest criticism, as you must if you intend to grow and improve as a writer, you must reward the person that provides it with your sincere thanks.

I know this to be true but I must admit that I haven’t managed to write a draft that was complete enough to ask for serious criticism. I have written some  character sketches that I have asked for criticism on. I have intended to thank my reviewers properly. I am not a good judge of how well I did on that. I suspect there is plenty of room for growth in that regard as well.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.