I’m doing an AMA in the Science Fiction reddit today. Stop by and ask me anything about my writing, past or future books, technology, etc! I’ll be checking in periodically throughout the day.
How does it affect time travel if you start with the assumption that reality as we know it is a computer simulation?
In this case, time travel has nothing to do with physics, and everything to do with software simulations.
Time travel backward would require that the program saves all previous states (or at least checkpoints at fine enough granularity to make it useful enough for time traveling) and the ability to insert logic and data from the present into states of the program in the past. Seems feasible.
Time travel forward would consist of removing the time traveling person from the program, running the program forward until reaching the future destination, then reinserting the person.
Forward time travel is relatively cheap (because you’d be running the program forward anyhow), but backward time travel is expensive because you keep having to roll the universe back, slowing the forward progress of time. In fact, one person could do a denial of service attack on reality simply by continually traveling to the distant past. Then, every time you come back, you would have to immediately return to the past.
A few days ago a friend mentioned they were subscribing to The New York Times to help ensure we’d continue to benefit from real journalism, and because the NYT has been repeatedly singled out by Trump. That started me thinking about places to either spend or donate to counter the abuses we’ll see under Trump. After some consideration, here’s what I’ve done.
- News: Trump suppresses news sources that disagree with him. More than ever, it is important to support newspapers with actual investigative journalism. I subscribed to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
- Civil Liberties: I donated to the ACLU, who has defended gay marriage, voting, reproductive rights, and a slew of other important liberties for the last hundred years.
- Hate Crimes: I donated to the SPLC, which tracks hate crime and hate groups across the US.
- Digital Rights: The US has never had a more pervasive surveillance state than it does right now. Trump has demonstrated that he’ll do and support anything to get what he wants, including threatening to imprison his political opponents, attack independent news sources, use torture, etc. We can be virtually guaranteed that he will include extensive use of the surveillance apparatus to spy on people. I donated to the EFF, which fights to protect digital rights, including privacy and our access to strong encryption.
- Women’s Health: Trump and Pence will go after women’s rights and access to healthcare. I donated to Planned Parenthood.
- Black Lives Matter: I donated to Black Lives Matter. There are many other groups of people who are discriminated against, but the epidemic of violence against black people is particularly bad and has to stop. I was particularly encouraged to see that the Black Lives Matter organization is working with the indigenous people at Standing Rock. Organizations, governments, and businesses that abuse or ignore the rights and wellbeing of one group will do the same to other groups and to the environment. Groups working together to support each other sets a great example.
It’s not easy for everyone to afford to make a donation. In my case, I’m choosing to make donations in lieu of buying gifts for family this holiday season. (Merry Christmas to my mom, dad, brother, and partner!)
I hope you will consider making donations to one or more of these organizations or contributing in some other way.
Kill Process was not part of the initial ballot, but thanks to enthusiastic write-in votes, it has made it to the semifinal round! Thank you so much to everyone who voted during the initial round.
Now that Kill Process is on the ballot during this semifinal round, I hope you’ll consider voting for it. (Even if you voted for it during the initial voting round, I think you need to vote again.)
When I finish a novel, I always need a break from writing for a while to recharge. Sometimes I take a break from long-form writing and do a series of short blog posts, or sometimes I bury myself in programming for a while.
This time around, it’s been a little of everything: My day job has been busy. I’ve done a few small programming projects on the side. I’m networking with film and TV folks in the hopes of getting a screen adaptation for one of my books. And I’m researching topics for my next book.
In the last couple of months, I’ve experimented with different ideas for my next book. I have about 10,000 words written — that’s about 10% of the average length of one of my books. I don’t want to say too much more, because it’s so early in the process that it could go in almost any possible direction. But I have general ideas I want to explore, and a tentative story arc.
That’s usually enough for me to get going. I’m not a big outliner, even though plenty of writers swear by the process. I tried outlining a novel once and learned that once I had finished the outline and knew how the story ended, I had no interest in actually writing it. Now I stick to a loose story arc, and let my characters take me where they want to go.
I will find out more about their destination in the coming month. November is NaNoWriMo. If you are not familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, in which people aim to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. I’ve never written a whole novel in November, but I often like to use the month to build momentum, so I’ve set myself a modest word count goal for this November. It should be enough to prove out many of the concepts I’m planning for the book.
When I wrote Kill Process, I had no idea how it would be received. It was a departure from my existing series and my focus on AI. Would existing fans enjoy the new work, or be disappointed that I had changed subject matter? Would my focus on issues such as domestic violence and corporate ownership of data make for an interesting story, or detract from people’s interest? Just how much technology could I put in a book, anyway? Is JSON and XML a step too far?
I’m happy to be able to say that people seem to be enjoying it very much. A numerical rating can never completely represent the complexity of a book, but Kill Process is averaging 4.8 stars across 98 reviews on Amazon, a big leap up compared to my earlier books.
I’m also delighted that a lot of the reviews specifically call out that Kill Process is an improvement over my previous writing. As much as I enjoyed the stories in Avogadro Corp and AI Apocalypse, I readily admit the writing is not as good as I wanted it to be. I’m glad the hard work makes a difference people can see. Here are a few quotes from Amazon reviews that made me smile:
- “I think this is some of his best writing, with good character development, great plot line with twists and turns and an excellent weaving in of technology. Hertling clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the tech, but it doesn’t overwhelm the plot line.” — Greg-C
- “This was an outstanding read. I thought I was going to get a quick high tech thriller. What I got was an education in state of the art along with some great thinking about technology, a business startup book, and a cool story to boot. I came away really impressed. William Hertling is a thoughtful writer and clearly researches the heck out of his books. While reading three of the supposedly scifi future aspects of the book showed up as stories in the NY Times. He couldn’t be more topical. This was a real pleasure.” — Stu the Honest Review Guy
- “A modern day Neuromancer about cutting edge technological manipulation, privacy, and our dependence on it.” — AltaEgoNerd
- “Every William Hertling book is excellent–mind-blowing and -building, about coding, hacking, AI and how humans create, interact and are inevitably changed by software. They are science fiction insofar as not every hack has been fully executed…yet. His latest, Kill Process, is a spread-spectrum of hacking, psychology and the start-up of a desperately needed, world-changing technology created by a young team of coders gathered together by a broken but brilliant leader, Angie, whose secrets and exploits will dominate your attention until the final period.” — John Kirk
You get the idea. I’m glad that accurate, tech-heavy science fiction has an audience. As long as people keep enjoying it, I’ll keep writing it.
I just finished Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. I’m not sure where I heard about Red Sparrow. Possibly from Brad Feld?
After a little bit of a slow start, I really enjoyed it. The last half of the book is extremely hard to put down. I’ve long been a fan of spy thrillers, and Red Sparrow delivers this well. I especially liked how Jason Matthews brought the US-Russia relationship up to date, and was able to deliver a plausible cold-war style thriller in a very modern politically current story.
A lot of the technology was really interesting as well: the tracking dust to determine which Russians had come in contact with CIA agents was brilliant. I have to assume this really exists.
There’s some head-hopping that goes on, which is a style of writing that’s largely fallen out of favor. It took a little while to adjust to switching the point-of-view character midway through a scene, but Matthews handles switches reasonably well, and by the time I was a third of the way into the book, it was mostly invisible to me.
This is the first book in a series, and although I’m often reluctant to recommend a book when the whole series isn’t out yet, in this case I think Red Sparrow is enjoyable enough on its own.
With each book I write, I usually create an accompanying blog post about the technology in the story: what’s real, what’s on the horizon, and what’s totally made up.
My previous Singularity series extrapolated out from current day technology by ten year intervals, which turned the books into a series of predictions about the future. Kill Process is different because it’s a current day novel. A few of the ideas are a handful of years out, but not by much.
Haven’t read Kill Process yet? Then stop here, go buy the book, and come back after you’ve read it. 🙂
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The technology of Kill Process can be divided into three categories:
- General hacking: profiling people, getting into computers and online accounts, and accessing data feeds, such as video cameras.
- Remotely controlling hardware to kill people.
- The distributed social network Tapestry.
General Hacking and Profiling
In the mid-1980s, Angie is running a multiline dial-up chat system called a Diversi-Dial (real). An enemy hacker shuts off her phone service. Angie calls the phone company on an internal number, and talks to an employee, and tricks them into reconnecting her phone service in such a way that she doesn’t get billed for it. All aspects of this are real, including the chat system and the disconnect/reconnect.
As an older teenager, Angie wins a Corvette ZR1 by rerouting phone calls into a radio station. Real. This is the exact hack that Kevin Poulsen used to win a Porsche.
In the current day, Angie regularly determines where people are. They’re running a smartphone application (Tomo) that regularly checks in with Tomo servers to see if there are any new notifications. Each time they check in, their smartphone determines their current geolocation, and uploads their coordinates. Angie gets access to this information not through hacking, but by exploiting her employee access at Tomo. All of this is completely feasible, and it’s how virtually all social media applications work. The granularity of geocoordinates can vary, depending on whether the GPS is currently turned on, but even without GPS, the location can be determined via cell phone tower triangulation to within a few thousand feet. If you want to mask your location from social media apps, you can use the two smartphone approach: One smartphone has no identifying applications or accounts on it, and is used to act as a wireless hotspot. A second smartphone has no SIM card and/or is placed in airplane mode so that it has no cellular connection, and GPS functionality is turned off. It connects to the Internet via the wireless hotspot functionality of the first phone. This doesn’t hide you completely (because the IP address of the first phone can be tracked), but it will mask your location from typical social media applications. While Angie can see everyone, because of her employee access, even regular folks can stalk their “friends”: stalking people via Facebook location data.
Angie determines if people are happy, depressed, or isolated based on patterns of social media usage as well as the specific words they use. Feasible. Studies have been done using sentiment analysis to determine depression.
Angie profiles domestic abusers through their social media activity. Quasi-feasible. Most abusers seek to isolate their victims, and that will include keeping their victims off social media. That would make it hard for Angie to profile them, because it’s difficult to profile what’s not there. On the other hand, many abusers stalk their victims through their smartphones, which actually opens up more opportunities to detect when such abuse happens.
Angie builds a private onion routing network using solar-powered Raspberry Pi computers. This is very feasible, and multiple crowd sourced projects for onion routers have launched.
Angie seamlessly navigates between user’s payment data (the Tomo app handles NFC payments), social media profiles, search data, and web history. This is real. Data from multiple sources is routinely combined, even across accounts that you think are not connected, because you used different email addresses to sign up. There are many ways information can leak to connect accounts: a website has both email addresses, a friend has both email addresses listed under one contact, attempting to log in under one email address and then logging under a different across. But the most common is web browser cookies from advertisers that tracking you across multiple websites and multiple experiences. They know all of your browser activity is “you”. Even if you never sign up for Facebook or other social media accounts, they are aggregating information about who you are, who your connections are. Future Crimes by Marc Goodman has one of the best descriptions of this. But I’ll warn you that this book is so terrifying that I had to consume it in small bits, because I couldn’t stomach reading it all at once.
Angie hacks a database that she can’t access by provisioning an extra database server into a cluster, making modifications to that server (which she has compromised), and waiting for the changes to synchronize. Likely feasible, but I don’t have a ton of experience here. The implication is that she has access to change the configuration of the cluster, even though she doesn’t have access to modify the database. This is plausible. An IT organization could give an ops engineers rights to do things related to provisioning without giving them access to change the data itself.
Angie did a stint in Ops to give herself backdoors into the provisioning layer. Feasible. It’s implausible that Angie could do everything she does by herself unless I gave her some advantages, simply because it’s too time consuming to do everything via brute force attacks. By giving Angie employee access, and letting her install backdoors into the software, it makes her much more powerful, and enables her to do things that might otherwise take a large group of hackers much longer periods of time to achieve.
Angie manipulates the bitcoin market by forcing Tomo to buy exponentially larger and larger amounts of bitcoin. This is somewhat feasible, although bitcoin probably has too much money invested in it now to be manipulated by one company’s purchases. Such manipulation would be more plausible with one of the smaller, less popular alternative currencies, but I was afraid that general readers wouldn’t be familiar with the other currencies. The way she does this is somewhat clever, I think. Rather than change the source code, which would get the closest level of inspection, she does it by changing the behavior of the database so that it returns different data than expected: in one case returning the reverse of a number, and in another case, returning a list of accounts from which to draw funds. Since access to application code and application servers is often managed separately from access to database servers, attacking the database server fits with Angie’s skills and previous role as database architect.
Angie is in her office when Igloo detects ultrasonic sounds. Ultrasonic communication between a computer and smartphone to get around airgaps is real. Basics of ultrasonic communication. Malware using ultrasonic to get around air gaps of up to 60 feet.
Remotely Controlling Hardware
In the recent past, most devices with embedded electronics ran custom firmware that implemented a very limited set of functionality: exactly what was needed for the function of the device, no more and no less. It ran on very limited hardware, with just exactly the functionality that was needed.
But the trend of decreasing electronics cost, increasing functionality, and connectivity has driven many devices towards using general-purpose operating systems running on general purpose computers. By doing so, they get benefits such as a complete network stack for doing TCP/IP communication, APIs for commodity storage devices, and libraries that implement higher levels functions. Unfortunately, all of this standard software may have bugs in it. If your furnace moves to a Raspberry Pi controller, for example, you now have a furnace vulnerable to any bug or security exploit in any aspect of the Linux variant that’s running, as well as any bugs or exploits in the application written by the furnace manufacturer.
Angie has a car execute a pre-determined set of maneuvers based on an incoming signal. Feasible in the near future. This particular scenario hasn’t happened, but hackers are making many inroads: Hackers remote take control of a Jeep. Remotely disable brakes. Unlock VW cars.
Killing someone via their pacemaker. Feasible: Hackers Kill a Mannequin.
Controlling an elevator. Not feasible yet, but will be feasible in the future when building elevators implement general internet or wireless connectivity for diagnostics and/or elevator coordination.
Software defined radios can communicate at a wide range of frequencies and be programmed to use any wireless protocol. Real.
Angie hacks smoke and carbon monoxide alarms to disable the alarm prior to killing someone. Unfortunately, hacking smoke alarms is real, as is hacking connected appliances. Appliances typically have very weak security. It’s feasible in the near future that Angie could adjust combustion settings and reroute airflow for a home furnace. Setting a house on fire is very possible.
There’s a scene involving a robot and a gun. I won’t say much more about the scene, but people have put guns on drones. Real.
Tapestry / Distributed Social Networks
Angie defined a function to predict the adoption of a social network. This was my own creation, modeled on the Drake Equation. It received some input from others, and while I’m not aware of anyone using it, it probably can be used as a thought exercise for evaluating social network ideas.
IndieWeb is completely real and totally awesome. If you’re a programmer, get involved.
The protocols for how Tapestry works are all feasible. I architected everything that was in the book to make sure it could be done, to the point of creating interaction diagrams and figuring out message payloads. Some of this stuff I kept, but most was just a series of whiteboard drawings.
I haven’t exhaustively covered everything in the book, but what I have listed should help demonstrate that essentially all the technology in Kill Process is known to be real, or is plausible today, or will be feasible within the next few years.
For more reading, I recommend:
- Future Crimes by Marc Goodman: current non-fiction about what’s possible today and in the near future.
- Classic accounts of real-life computer hackers:
Advanced Platform Building
- The right message + the right words + the right audience = massive success
- Owned media
- Your website, your blog, email newsletter, any content you host yourself
- You don’t own social media, you don’t have people’s names, you can’t control it.
- You must have a website
- Critical tool for long-term decision making: Google Analytics
- It’s free, and even if you don’t think you need it now, put it on anyway, so you can have the data in the future.
- Google Mobile Usability
- Google Webmaster Tools – Mobile Usability
- You must fix this, because it affects how your site is scored and ranked
- Design unity and repetition
- Images, colors, fonts, headers/banners, icon or illustration style
- Look at all touchpoints: Website/blog, email newsletter, business crds, social media cover images: should all echo the same design elements.
- How does your website name and description and top links appear in google search results
- The metadata appears in many different places
- Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress
- Email lists
- Number one way to reach most important fans.
- At least once a month so people don’t forget who you are, but not more than once per week.
- Media consumption list: all the cool stuff you used/read/consumed
- Funny stuff
- Behind the scenes
- Giveaways, discounts, competitions
- Book launch campaigns
- Make it consistent and sustainable
- List building: your website
- Highly trafficked pages
- End-of-page call to action
- And social media
- Mailmunch: popup survey that is not too annoying
- Sumome: popup survey alternative
- Both of above integrate with mailchimp
- Doubled mailing list in six months
- Use a custom subject line à more effective than
- Consider convertkit email mailing list
- Marketing Funnels
- Marketing communications
- Objectives: Sales-focused, message-focused
- Message impact sequence:
- (1) Awareness, (2) comprehension, (3) conviction, (4) action (the sale)
- Funnel works best when you know what the call-to-action is for someone at each stage of the funnel
- Marketing communications
- Common calls to actions
- Buy my latest book.
- Sign up for my email newsletter.
- Download this free excerpt or guide.
- Take this quiz.
- Sign up for my class.
- Follow me on X social media network.
- Language matters:
- “Be the Smartest Author: Stay informed about the best digital media tools and meaningful publishing industry news (2-3x month).”
- What do you give people that’s free that attracts new people?
- What do you give people that are fans?
- To attract new readers or fans: Consider things people can easily say yes to
- Giveaways, discounts, free first book in a series, free workshop or course, free downloadable guide
- Existing readers and fans
- Use social media to generate excitement about upcoming work (cover reveals questions)
- The more books or content you have, the more options you have.
- Lead magnets: the thing you give away for free to get customers.
- Facebook ads: work with a consultant who helps you set up Facebook ads.
- Facebook Pixel: You add something to your website, and then Facebook allows you to create ads targeting people who have visiting your website.
- Working with influencers:
- What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on?
- What’s the most challenging thing you’re working on?
- These can open up possibilities to help someone.
- You can do it strategically, but you have to do it from a good place, not a manipulative place.
- Working with VIPs
- Avoid asking for book launch favors on social media.
- Personal email should be used for important requests.
- Be specific.
- VIPs may want to help, but they don’t have the attention span or mental space to figure out what is best.
- What different ways can content be used? Use all the different formats, not just one.
- Example: VQRTrueStory
- Instagram photo with story as caption
- Story as article on blog
- Best story over 3 months goes into the print journal
- Example: VQRTrueStory
- Do image overlays: Images get far more engagements and clicks than just a link.
- For an article, do a photo with a pull quote overlaid on it, then share that for different networks
- Flowcharts are very popular on Tumblr…so Jane created one.
- Consider a series or challenge that solicits participation
- They often get saved, shared, and forwarded.
- User generated content
- Example: “30 day poetry challenge”
- Simplegreensmoothies: challenge people to drink 1 green smoothie a day.
- Posted different recipes every day for 30 days
- Harness power of images and videos
- Images vastly more shared than just text or text and links (10x)
- Canva.com, will help you create the images for social media
- Where to get an easy start with video
- Facebook Live (video): can only be done with phone or tablet, so quality can be low
- What different ways can content be used? Use all the different formats, not just one.
- Private Facebook Groups
- User-Generated Content
- Very task-oriented, or people won’t do it.
- Must be monitored in some way to keep on topic
- Built-in reward: must be tangible benefits to everyone
- Focuses on relevant topics and keywords
- Does not necessarily mean unedited
- Tapas app: https://tapas.io/
- Serialize books and make much
- Use Google Trends to look up search terms and relate search terms…it tells you what people are searching for, which tells you which words to use it in your posts and post titles
- Soovle is a tool that searches multiple sites at once to tell you what people are searching for
- Also use “Searches related to <searchterm>” at the bottom of the search results page
- Google Search Console: How are you being found now?
- After you do this analysis, go back and look at your titles: make sure they are clear, literal, and related to your books
- Goodreads and LibraryThing
- LibraryThings has tags, tagsmash, and other tools that are useful
- Logical Marketing Slideshare
- FollowerWonk: to analyze twitter followers, type of tweets, etc.
- MozTools : SEO Moz, open site explorer
- Make every marketing effort trackable
- Tools for Tracking
- Google Analystics
- Amazon Affiliate
I’m excited to announce that my new novel, Kill Process, is now available!
Here’s where you can get it right now:
More storefronts, such as iBooks and Barnes & Noble, will be available in the coming days. I’m also very happy to announce that, thanks to in part to fast work from Brick Shop Audio, the audio book edition is already available!
By day, Angie, a twenty-year veteran of the tech industry, is a data analyst at Tomo, the world’s largest social networking company; by night, she exploits her database access to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them. She can’t change her own traumatic past, but she can save other women.
When Tomo introduces a deceptive new product that preys on users’ fears to drive up its own revenue, Angie sees Tomo for what it really is—another evil abuser. Using her coding and hacking expertise, she decides to destroy Tomo by building a new social network that is completely distributed, compartmentalized, and unstoppable. If she succeeds, it will be the end of all centralized power in the Internet.
But how can an anti-social, one-armed programmer with too many dark secrets succeed when the world’s largest tech company is out to crush her and a no-name government black ops agency sets a psychopath to look into her growing digital footprint?
A few of the early endorsements:
“Awesome, thrilling, and creepy: a fast-paced portrayal of the startup world, and the perils of our personal data and technical infrastructure in the wrong hands.”
—Brad Feld, managing director of Foundry Group
“His most ambitious work yet. A murder thriller about high tech surveillance and espionage in the startup world. Like the best of Tom Clancy and Barry Eisner.”
—Gene Kim, author of The Phoenix Project
“Explores the creation and effects of the templated self, the rise of structured identity and one-size-fits-all media culture, and feasible alternatives.”
—Amber Case, author of Calm Technology
I hope you have a blast reading Kill Process. I certainly enjoyed writing it.