Posts Tagged ‘Computers for Writers’

More Computers For Writers

Friday, January 15th, 2010

I’m reading a really great book right now — not a romance by the way — with a major plot point that involves computers.

Someone is blackmailing people with surreptitious photos of them engaging with prostitutes. The photog has a digital SLR camera and emails the photos to his partner in crime (PIC). He then deletes the photos from his computer. The computers described, by the way, are all running a Windows Operating System (OS), that’s pretty clear.

The hero is in possession of the PIC’s computer but is questioning the photog at his house in full sight of the photog’s computer and camera. I’m not sure because the scene is actually unclear, but I believe the hero removes the memory chip from the SLR and hands it to someone else while he reviews the photos in the camera’s memory.

I have big issues with the camera thing, since my experience is that a professional quality SLR takes such HUGE file-size photos that you can’t store anything on the camera itself. But while my Nikon D80 is a high end SLR, I’m not familiar with the kind of SLR pros use, so maybe this is right. I doubt it, but whatever.

The photos the hero hopes to find are not on the SLR (and I’m thinking, doh! They’re on the memory card you took out and then the photog explains how he deletes the photos from the computer and emails the best ones to his PIC.

I am now thinking, cool! This is going to be easy. Make the guy login to his email program and check his email sent items folder.

But no. They push aside that computer, go get the PIC’s computer and find where the PIC saved off the emailed photos because the photog says, hey, I bet my PIC never renamed my photos. After which the author describes a file naming convention that contains characters that are illegal in a Windows OS.

Full Stop
What the F? Number one, most people are clueless about their computers. There is nothing wrong with that other than the pain that inevitably arises from owning a computer with an OS that is actively hostile to people who just want the damn thing to work.

So, people, if this guy has deleted the photos, they are surely in the trash file. The hero is supposed to be someone clueful and any fool should have thought of that.

But not to even think of looking in the guy’s email program? Come on. The stupid photos are there. There was no freaking need to fetch the recipient’s computer.


As an author, if you write a story in which someone is supposedly being all tricky and geeky about computers, please please please check with a REAL geek.

Please note, I am flying at a high level once again. There are nuances and details I’m skipping. This is informational only — if you’re looking for facts for your writing, please dig deeper and consult multiple sources.

In a Windows OS, you cannot name a file any darn thing you want. There are certain characters (most of them are puncutation) you are not permitted to use. You can use multiple periods, though. If you try to use them, the computer will return an error to the effect that you can’t name your file in that manner.

On any computer it is REMARKABLY hard to delete all traces of a file. The trash file is the blindingly obvious place to look, but there are other places to look as well as known methods for recovering deleted drives. Now, this story does not (yet) involve a computer forensics specialist so I’m not griping that the hero doesn’t know this.

But here’s some interesting things:

To well and truly wipe a hard drive, you have to degauss it. Three times. There’s a military spec program that will do this. It will wipe a hard drive, rewriting ALL the bits and bytes three times. Even then I bet there’s a way to get around that. For more info, you can google

degaussing a hard drive

When Windows deletes a file, it’s not really deleting it. Let me say that again: Windows doesn’t actually delete a file when you tell it to delete a file. All it does is overwrite the first character of the file name with a 0. Presto, to the OS, it’s deleted, but on your hard drive, it’s still there. And unless the OS happens to write another file to the exact same location it will stay there.

In case you think encrypting your computer is enough, all I can say is in the face of a skilled and determined geek, au contraire mon frere. But it’s still the best thing you can to do to protect your data.

As a side, side note to that, encrypting your hard drive is only as secure as your password. If you tape it to your computer or nearby or use a weak password you might as well not have bothered.

Turning off your computer is also no guarantee that everything in volatile memory is gone. It’s not. You can recover that, too. And if you get to a computer quickly enough (the time is longer than you think) you can reconstruct what was going on before it was turned off. Google

 computer forensics volatile memory

A really fun and interesting resource is 2600. I subscribe because there’s all kinds of crazy-cool stuff in it. If you’re at work, don’t be surprised if you can’t get to the site. Some companies block it. (I am laughing at that – because any good computer person will get there anyway — Not that I ever looked at 2600 when I worked for an employer who blocked the site — in a half assed way. Really.)


Here’s some password thoughts for you. Since I am a Database Administrator (DBA) I can tell you from personal experience that the MOST UNBELIEVABLY common passwords are:

[Your name]
[curse words]
[keystrokes in the horizontal or vertical order of appearance on a standard keyboard]

Any DBA can tell you it’s astonishing the bad passwords people pick. And disappointingly nasty. Some people are just crude.

An experienced computer person probably has a 40% chance of flat out guessing your password. Because they’ll run through the unbelievably common passwords. If that person knows a few things about you (your spouse, your birthday, your kids names or pets) bump that to 60%. Heck, if they’re just sitting at your desk, they’ll probably pick up enough to make some darn good guesses.

But what if your password isn’t unbelievably obvious? Check this out: How Long Will your Password last? A few examples: If you chose a password of numbers only: a 2 digit password will be cracked instantly.

Oh, you say, who picks a password that lame? You’d be surprised.

Let’s say you pick a 9 digit numeric password. On a crappy desktop, your password will be cracked in 28 hours. If you’re the government using a great computer, it’s instantaneous.

Letters are a little better, right? A five letter password (in the same case — all upper or all lower) will be cracked in 20 minutes on a crappy desktop machine. If you double the length to 10, then it’s 447 years. Unless you’re the government in which case it’s 39.5 hours. At 20 characters, even the government will need 631 billion years. Excluding words in the dictionary, of course, since those will be cracked in the first round . . . So, is YOUR password that long AND not in the dictionary?

Check out that link, once you’ve checked out the footnotes so you understand the chart (easy!!!) I hope you will go change your banking password.

Possibly NSFW because of the curse words: Top 500 Worst passwords I rest my case. There’s a lot of people who are picking passwords they’ll remember (understandable) instead of a password that’s not so lame it can be cracked instantly.

Of course, it’s possible to just install some malware and get passwords sent to you.


But true.

I won’t keep going even though I could.


Geek Alert! Info forAuthors

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

I’m reading this really good book in which the heroine is all computer geeky, which is fun. The author, at one point, has her heroine visiting a facility described as cutting edge, technology-wise, including computers. The author then casually mentions that the employee workspace (not IT employees) has computers and servers sitting around.


That’s the sound of Carolyn falling (briefly) out of this otherwise extremely excellent book. I forgive the author because the rest is so good.

So I’m going to explain, at a very high level, about servers so you won’t make that mistake. If you need specifics, Google around for more targeted info. I have left out details so as not to be hopelessly confusing. Or befriend someone in your IT department.

Employee workspace with computers? You betcha. Gotta have that.

Employee workspace with servers sitting around? No. Sorry. In a corporate environment there would NEVER be a server anywhere but in the server room. (See slight exception below).

What’s a server room you ask? Oh, what’s a server? Well, it’s a computer. Doh.

Hmm. Maybe an analogy will help. This applies to medium to large companies, OK? Companies with an IT budget of more than $200,000K a year — or way way more.

Your desktop computer is a Toyota Corolla. A server is a Lamborghini.

A basic Windows PC costs <$1,000. A basic server costs about $30,000 (If your needs are limited, otherwise, $100,000 wouldn’t be unusual.

A server room is a climate-controlled room dedicated to housing servers.

The server room should have controlled physical access so that only authorized people can get inside. Why? Because you don’t want your data or equipment walking out the door or worse.

Climate-controlled means it’s freaking cold in there. You need a coat if you’re going to be in there for very long.

Why? Because servers generate a lot of heat and hot servers shut down and your business ceases to function. Server rooms tend to be noisy. Often the AC is quite loud. The network guys will get paged if the server room temp gets too high (68 might be a warning level. 75 is reason to panic. at 8o, meltdown is immanent if not already happening.)

A lot of companies house certain servers in colocation facilities. These COLO facilities rent out server racks and provide some tech support, the climate control and the physical access control etc. You bring your own servers and put them in the racks yourself. Corporate IT personnel remotely administer the servers from wherever.

But many companies have at least some subset of servers on-site.

Servers do NOT have monitors. There might be a desk(s) in the server room with monitors and keyboards so you access the servers from there. Or, there might be a monitor/keyboard tray in the server rack that pulls out so you can pull up the monitor and access the servers in that rack.

This picture shows what looks to be a fairly modest sized server room. Over on the left there, toward the bottom, those 3 beige things are older severs. Note that they are labeled. The vertical thingees (there are 4 in each of the 3) to the right side of the beige servers are the hard drives. They come out — if one is broken, for example– and you can put a new drive in. To the bottom right, you can see two narrow black box thingees. They are also servers, but different ones. There’s another beige server underneath the two black ones.

Here’s an example of why you need physical access control (and also of how it can fail any way). Someone at a company once removed a server drive, replaced it with another drive and walked away with a copy of the corporate data. The multiple drives (depending) contain redundant data — they all have the same data. That way if one drive fails, your data is still up and running.

There are all different looks to servers and server rooms. Things can look all mismatched like this picture, or homogeneous. It depends on your budget, who you decided to buy from and what your needs are.

Server racks usually look like very tall cabinets. They usually have doors. You open the doors and see a stack of servers with blinking lights. They should also be labeled so you know which one is which in case you have to access the physical box (to add drives, memory or even (ack!) restart the box.)

The BACK of a server rack has ethernet cables that run from the network cards (most servers will have more than one network card) to a router or switch and usually from the router or switch to a patch panel. (Flying at a high level here!)

disorderly cablesThose cables can look like a spaghetti nightmare (in which case someone should be fired) Or they can be neat and orderly and tied down.

Here’s a flickr grouping of various server room photos if you’re curious about the variety.

But you can see that a server looks NOTHING like your desktop computer. You *could* configure a desktop computer as a server — but that’s not what you’d typically see in a corporate environment. Except in the room where IT personnel sit. Then you’d see workstations configured as servers for testing and development but, pray God, not production end-user equipments. Geeks like me play with those.

So, no high-falutin’ cutting edge company will have servers sitting around in an area open to non-IT personnel. Really. They generate heat and need to be kept cold. They wouldn’t sit flat on a desk. They’re made to be inserted into a rack. Would *you* want to be the one who accidentally knocks the $100,000 server off the table? Or watch it fall off the table during an earthquake? I don’t think so.

So, that’s it.