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Posted by Marci Cottingham

Human research subjects are all over popular media. Lab rats, guinea pigs, and even the obscure “Pharmer’s daughter” (From The Facility, 2012) all refer to people who participate in biomedical research as test subjects—often ingesting experimental drugs to test their toxicity or therapeutic effectiveness.

The clinical trial industry has decried the representations of human subjects in the media for being fantastical and overly dramatic. The concern is that portraying human subjects in a negative light hurts their ability to recruit participants, test experimental products, and profit from approved drugs.

But how are human research subjects actually portrayed?

In two new publications, my co-author Jill Fisher and I look at how human subjects are represented in popular entertainment media. We analyzed 65 television shows and films like Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Grey’s Anatomy, The Facility and The Amazing Spiderman.

We find that human research subjects are predominately white men from lower socio-economic backgrounds. When women are represented, they are more likely to be shown being coerced into research (rather than enrolling for therapeutic or financial reasons).

2 Broke Girls is actually an outlier in this regard. In this show, Max and Caroline were not coerced but financially motivated to participate in clinical trials—or as Max likes to call it: “getting paid $500 to roll the side effect dice and hope it lands on hallucinations! [audience laughter]”

Indeed, films and shows did use fantastical and dramatic representations of side effects—from discussions of men growing breasts, limb regrowth, and fits of rage and violence—and death and injury were common. Most of these medical studies failed—and failed in spectacularly horrific or comedic ways.

While negative, this portrayal is not necessarily wrong or bad:

Importantly, negative outcomes of fictional medical research are not the same as negative depictions of science… There are real risks to research participants who enroll in medical studies as well as high rates of scientific failure (Fisher and Cottingham 2017:575–76).

While industry representatives may dislike portrayals for their inaccuracies, the fact that many clinical trials do fail and have serious potential to harm subjects cannot be absolved by painting subjects as “medical heroes” as some have tried (Peddicord 2012).

What do human subjects think of these portrayals?

We took the study further by looking at how human research subjects themselves use film and television to understand clinical trials. Surprisingly, the discussion of dramatic side effects were common among their responses. As one participant noted: 

Like I never heard of this [clinical trials], and ‘They do what?!’ You know, you gonna grow an extra eye, you gonna grow, you-you know, you hear all these things, you know. – Rob

And yet, after they had participated in a clinical trial and saw that the more common side effects listed in the informed consent documents included dizziness, headaches, nausea, and fatigue, they became less concerned about the risks of clinical trials. Rather than scaring these participants away, representations in the media seemed to make the mundane and ordinary list of potential side effects (even cardiac issues!) appear even more acceptable.

We frame media portrayals and participant perspectives on the risks of clinical trials as collective and individual efforts to manage the anxieties surrounding the risks of experimental biomedical research. As a society, we have come to accept the fact that experimental research requires risking human welfare and comfort, but remain ambivalent about the idea that science is inherently good and linked to social progress.

Collectively, we manage this ambivalence by dehumanizing research subjects or indulging in tales of science gone wrong. At the individual level, research participants use media portrayals of “lab rats” and “guinea pigs” to manage the fears and anxieties of the research they undergo. No one has grown a third arm, had their penis shrink, or turned blue in a Phase I clinical trial, so it must not be too harmful…right?

Read More Here:

Cottingham, Marci D. and Jill A. Fisher. Forthcoming. “From Fantasy to Reality: Managing Biomedical Risk Emotions in and through Fictional Media.” Health, Risk & Society 1–17.

Fisher, Jill A. and Marci D. Cottingham. 2017. “This Isn’t Going to End Well: Fictional Representations of Medical Research in Television and Film.” Public Understanding of Science 26(5):564–78.

Peddicord, Doug. 2012. “Television’s Assault on Medical Research.Huffington Post.

Marci Cottingham is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the sociology of emotion, social inequalities, healthcare, and biomedical risk. More on her research (including the two papers discussed here) can be found on her website.

(View original at https://thesocietypages.org/socimages)

Me and Star Wars

2017-10-19 11:38
marthawells: (Stargate)
[personal profile] marthawells
Forgot to post this here yesterday:

Star Wars and me, when I was a lonely 13 year old: http://www.unboundworlds.com/2017/10/a-long-time-ago-martha-wells-how-star-wars-inspired-writing/

I was an isolated kid in a lot of ways, and didn’t know anybody else who really liked SF as much as I did. And I’d been told over and over again that liking SF/F, or liking anything involving books and media so intensely, was weird and strange and probably bad, or if not bad, something that made me a figure of ridicule. It was especially bad for a girl to like those things, but I was sure to get over it when I grew up and stopping being silly. I knew I wasn’t the only one, I knew there were other people like me out there; all these books and comics had been written by people, for people. But before Star Wars, it was hard to believe those people really existed.

Then I read this movie novelization, and read it again, and made the two whole friends I had read it, and we read it aloud to each other, and acted it out. And finally, a month or so after the movie came out, I got to see it. It was a shock at first, so different from how I’d imagined it from the book. But it wrote itself into my DNA and it’s still there, so many years later.
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

The headline says it all: The Dispatcher is an Amazon Deal of the Day, so you can get it for under a buck on the Kindle. What a deal! But it’s only for the day (October 19, 2017), and it’s for the US and Canada. I’m not sure if the price applies on other retailers today, so you’d have to check it out for yourself. Regardless, if you’ve not picked up this novella yet, today is a good day to do so. Enjoy!

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Posted by Bruce Schneier

The Norwegian Consumer Council has published a report detailing a series of security and privacy flaws in smart watches marketed to children.

Press release. News article.

This is the same group that found all those security and privacy vulnerabilities in smart dolls.

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Empire Games

Attention, British readers: Empire Games just came out in small format paperback today, with a price cut from the big trade paperback. The ebook edition also got a whole bit cheaper: Kindle edition here.

(The US paperback/cheap ebook will be along a bit later, because Tor UK and Tor USA are actually different publishers with different schedules.)

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Posted by Mark Liberman

Rick Rubenstein has nominated this sentence (from Oliver Roeder, "The Supreme Court Is Allergic To Math", FiveThirtyEight 10/17/2017) for the prestigious Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding:

Justice Neil Gorsuch balked at the multifaceted empirical approach that the Democratic team bringing the suit is proposing be used to calculate when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far, comparing the metric to a secret recipe.

Rick notes that "This passage from 538 took me several readings".

Courtesy of treebanking expert Beatrice Santorini, here's the constituent-structure tree:

Her comment:

The Penn Treebank style would omit the function tags -SBJ for subject and -OB1 for direct object, deducing the functions from the syntactic context.  Current annotation versions may also explicitly indicate compound nouns, which the structure below doesn’t.  The subjunctive on “be” isn’t explicitly indicated.

Quick Check-In

2017-10-18 22:29
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

Hello fellow humans! I am not dead. I am slowly making my way down the length of California toward my high school reunion.

Life is good. I hope also that your life is good.

Tell the class about your day in the comments.



[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Mark Liberman

In celebration of Geoff Pullum's 700th LLOG post, "World domination and threats to the public", we'll be meeting for a quiet (virtual) drink this evening. But meanwhile I'll quietly suggest that Geoff has been too hasty in joining Randall Munroe at xkcd in assigning to the field of Linguistics a "low likelihood of being a crucial tool for a supervillain, and low probability of anything breaking out of the research environment and threatening the general population".

In fact LLOG posts have described at least two fictional counter-examples  over the years, and I expect that commenters will be able to suggest some others.

There's "La septième fonction du langage" (8/24/2017), describing Laurent Binet's novel of the same name, which imagines that Roman Jakobson extended his six functions of language with a secret seventh function, designated as the “magic or incantatory function,” whose mechanism is described as “the conversion of a third person, absent or inanimate, to whom a conative message is addressed". Instructions for using this seventh function were powerful enough to ensure the election of François Mitterand, and motivated an international police operation to prevent them from falling into more dangerous hands.

And there's also "Digitoneurolinguistic hacking" (2/4/2011) in which I quoted the Wikipedia entry for Neil Stephenson's 2003 novel Snow Crash:

The book explores the controversial concept of neuro-linguistic programming and presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus, similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter-program which he called a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah, supposedly giving rise to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. […]

As Stephenson describes it, one goddess/semi-historical figure, Asherah, took it upon herself to create a dangerous biolinguistic virus and infect all peoples with it; this virus was stopped by Enki, who used his skills as a "neurolinguistic hacker" to create an inoculating "nam-shub" that would protect humanity by destroying its ability to use and respond to the Sumerian tongue. This forced the creation of "acquired languages" and gave rise to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately, Asherah's meta-virus did not disappear entirely, as the "Cult of Asherah" continued to spread it by means of cult prostitutes and infected women breast feeding orphaned infants …

Since these examples belong more to the realm of fantasy than hard science fiction, I have to admit that Geoff is probably right about our field being "a safe thing to work on" — at least if you have a positive opinion of the  various modern commercial and governmental applications of computational linguistics.


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Posted by Bruce Schneier

In August, four US Senators introduced a bill designed to improve Internet of Things (IoT) security. The IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2017 is a modest piece of legislation. It doesn't regulate the IoT market. It doesn't single out any industries for particular attention, or force any companies to do anything. It doesn't even modify the liability laws for embedded software. Companies can continue to sell IoT devices with whatever lousy security they want.

What the bill does do is leverage the government's buying power to nudge the market: any IoT product that the government buys must meet minimum security standards. It requires vendors to ensure that devices can not only be patched, but are patched in an authenticated and timely manner; don't have unchangeable default passwords; and are free from known vulnerabilities. It's about as low a security bar as you can set, and that it will considerably improve security speaks volumes about the current state of IoT security. (Full disclosure: I helped draft some of the bill's security requirements.)

The bill would also modify the Computer Fraud and Abuse and the Digital Millennium Copyright Acts to allow security researchers to study the security of IoT devices purchased by the government. It's a far narrower exemption than our industry needs. But it's a good first step, which is probably the best thing you can say about this legislation.

However, it's unlikely this first step will even be taken. I am writing this column in August, and have no doubt that the bill will have gone nowhere by the time you read it in October or later. If hearings are held, they won't matter. The bill won't have been voted on by any committee, and it won't be on any legislative calendar. The odds of this bill becoming law are zero. And that's not just because of current politics -- I'd be equally pessimistic under the Obama administration.

But the situation is critical. The Internet is dangerous -- and the IoT gives it not just eyes and ears, but also hands and feet. Security vulnerabilities, exploits, and attacks that once affected only bits and bytes now affect flesh and blood.

Markets, as we've repeatedly learned over the past century, are terrible mechanisms for improving the safety of products and services. It was true for automobile, food, restaurant, airplane, fire, and financial-instrument safety. The reasons are complicated, but basically, sellers don't compete on safety features because buyers can't efficiently differentiate products based on safety considerations. The race-to-the-bottom mechanism that markets use to minimize prices also minimizes quality. Without government intervention, the IoT remains dangerously insecure.

The US government has no appetite for intervention, so we won't see serious safety and security regulations, a new federal agency, or better liability laws. We might have a better chance in the EU. Depending on how the General Data Protection Regulation on data privacy pans out, the EU might pass a similar security law in 5 years. No other country has a large enough market share to make a difference.

Sometimes we can opt out of the IoT, but that option is becoming increasingly rare. Last year, I tried and failed to purchase a new car without an Internet connection. In a few years, it's going to be nearly impossible to not be multiply connected to the IoT. And our biggest IoT security risks will stem not from devices we have a market relationship with, but from everyone else's cars, cameras, routers, drones, and so on.

We can try to shop our ideals and demand more security, but companies don't compete on IoT safety -- and we security experts aren't a large enough market force to make a difference.

We need a Plan B, although I'm not sure what that is. Comment if you have any ideas.

This essay previously appeared in the September/October issue of IEEE Security & Privacy.

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Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum

Linguistics is in the most desirable quadrant according to today's xkcd: low likelihood of being a crucial tool for a supervillain, and low probability of anything breaking out of the research environment and threatening the general population.

But I'm not at all sure that everything is positioned correctly. Molasses storage should be further to the right (never forget the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919); dentistry should be moved up (remember Marathon Man); robotics in its current state is too highly ranked on both axes; and entomology, right now (October 18, 2017), in addition to being slightly too low, is spelled wrong. Lots to quibble about, I'd say. But not the standing of linguistics as a safe thing to work on.

Randall Munroe did not pick molasses as a random threat, of course; his mouseover alt text reads: "The 1919 Great Boston Molasses Flood remained the deadliest confectionery containment accident until the Canadian Space Agency's 2031 orbital maple syrup delivery disaster."

And I think the misspelling of entomology must be another case of him toying with us; he knows people confuse etymology with the study of insects: see https://xkcd.com/1012/. I think he's just messing with our heads. As usual.

Thanks to Joan Maling and Meredith Warshaw.

A couple of tumblr posts

2017-10-18 09:29
marthawells: (Default)
[personal profile] marthawells
* My publisher made Murderbot tattoos and sent them to me: https://marthawells.tumblr.com/post/166534388472/i-have-murderbot-tattoos-and-arcs-of-the

* Another quote from The Murderbot Diaries: Artifcial Condition for Book Quote Wednesday on Twitter: https://marthawells.tumblr.com/post/166536276597/for-book-quote-wednesday-on-twitter-the-murderbot


2017-10-17 17:48
spqrblues: (Blues 5 Felix colour)
[personal profile] spqrblues
Back again, after the break for getting the printed book sorted out.

For the month of October, I've decided to try drawing the comic digitally, since I planned to be on the road a lot this month (and sort of on the road, at NY Comic Con). There may be a bit of a learning curve, and some panels may end up being tweaked (by which I mean, "obsessively fussed with") after posting. So far, though, the learning curve isn't as severe as the last time I tried drawing the comic digitally. I think that's because of an improvement in the tech, not me.

click to see the comic )

I find that drawing digitally makes my line a lot looser--not necessarily evident in this comic, since I forced the line into line--so we'll see how that develops.

The Airport Ritual

2017-10-17 16:21
[syndicated profile] sociological_images_feed

Posted by Evan Stewart

This weekend I was at the annual conference for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, where they held a memorial for sociologist Peter Berger. I thought of Berger and Luckmann’s classic The Social Construction of Reality in the airport on the way home. Whenever people say ritual is dying out, or socially constructed things “aren’t real,” I think of airport lines.

There are always two lines, but rarely any separation other than a sign like this. If you’re lucky, you can catch the gate agent making a big show of opening the “general boarding” lane, but everyone ends up at the same scanner right past the sign (usually only a minute or two after the “elite” passengers). From Berger and Luckmann (the Anchor Books paperback edition):

The developing human being not only interrelates with a particular natural environment, but with a specific cultural and social order which is mediated to him by the significant others who have charge of him (p. 48).

The symbolic universe orders and thereby legitimates everyday roles, priorities, and operating procedures…even the most trivial transactions of everyday life may come to be imbued with profound significance (p. 99).

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

(View original at https://thesocietypages.org/socimages)

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Posted by Mark Liberman

Alex Jones, contact LLOG immediately! Never mind Pizzagate, never mind Sandy Hook, never mind the FEMA concentration camps, never mind the fake moon landings. This morning I stumbled on evidence, lying around in plain sight, for a systematic program of deception so huge — and yet so improbable — that even InfoWars listeners will find it hard to believe: Donald Trump is actually Barack Obama in disguise.

For years, I've been collecting and analyzing the weekly addresses of various American presidents — see e.g. "Political sound and silence", 2/8/2016; "Some speech style dimensions", 6/27/2016; "Trends in presidential pitch", 5/19/2017; "Trends in presidential pitch II", 6/21/2017.

Today I was catching up with Donald Trump's weekly addresses, downloading the .mp3 files from whitehouse.gov. The most recent weekly address is available at


with the mp3 download link


After downloading the mp3 file, in order to check its characteristics, I ran soxi. I've done this before, but in the past I just looked at the things I cared about, namely the sampling frequency and number of channels. But this time, I happened to look at the ID3 metadata fields as well:

Input File : '20171013_Weekly_Address.mp3'
Channels : 2
Sample Rate : 16000
Precision : 16-bit
Duration : 00:03:26.17 = 3298752 samples ~ 15462.9 CDDA sectors
File Size : 3.45M
Bit Rate : 134k
Sample Encoding: MPEG audio (layer I, II or III)
Comments :
Title=Weekly Address
Artist=President Barack Obama
Album=The White House

I wondered whether this was a one-time glitch, so I checked the history. The first of President "Trump"'s weekly addresses is available at


with the mp3 download link


And the metadata is the same:

Input File : '20170203_Weekly_Address.mp3'
Channels : 2
Sample Rate : 16000
Precision : 16-bit
Duration : 00:04:20.24 = 4163904 samples ~ 19518.3 CDDA sectors
File Size : 4.27M
Bit Rate : 131k
Sample Encoding: MPEG audio (layer I, II or III)
Comments :
Title=Weekly Address
Artist=President Barack Obama
Album=The White House

In fact this is consistent in all of the Weekly Addresses from Donald Trump's White House.

It's not an issue in all mp3 encodings from the White House — thus Melania Trump's 10/17/2017 "Hurricane Relief PSA" is attributed to "Artist=The White House", even if the year is still given as 2016:

Input File : '20171011_FLOTUS_DTC.mp3'
Channels : 2
Sample Rate : 16000
Precision : 16-bit
Duration : 00:00:31.50 = 504000 samples ~ 2362.5 CDDA sectors
File Size : 696k
Bit Rate : 177k
Sample Encoding: MPEG audio (layer I, II or III)
Comments :
Artist=The White House
Album=The White House

And the same is true for the president's joint news conference with PM Theresa May back in January:

Input File : '20170127_POTUS_and_PM_May_JPA.mp3'
Channels : 2
Sample Rate : 16000
Precision : 16-bit
Duration : 00:18:19.20 = 17587168 samples ~ 82439.9 CDDA sectors
File Size : 17.8M
Bit Rate : 130k
Sample Encoding: MPEG audio (layer I, II or III)
Comments :
Title=POTUS and PM May JPA
Artist=The White House
Album=The White House

It's just the weekly addresses that are attributed to "President Barack Obama"

By the way, you may be as disappointed as I was to learn that the "Genre=12" just means "Other" — I was hoping for maybe "[23] => Pranks" or "[58] => Cult" or "[136] => Christian Gangsta".

Jokes aside, what this means is presumably that the Trump White House inherited a recording and web-distribution set-up from the Obama White House, and neglected to change the ID3 metadata information for various categories of material.


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Posted by John Scalzi

Today Tor Books is releasing Old Man’s War in a spiffy new “mini”-format hardcover edition: All the benefits of a hardcover book, miniaturized for your convenience! It’s available at your favorite bookstores in the US and Canada, and it’s no coincidence that it’s being released just prior to the holiday season. Stocking stuffer, my friends, and/or a nice little gift for, like, day four of Hanukkah. But you don’t need to wait for the holidays to get it. You can get it today. For yourself! And pick up several copies for friends! Distribute them like Pez! It’s the Covandu version of OMW, if you will, and if you get that joke, thank you for being a fan.

I’m delighted at this new mini hardcover of OMW because, among other things, the original hardcover run of the book, almost thirteen(!) years ago now, is actually pretty small: about 3,700 for the first printing, and about 7,700 overall. OMW really took off in the trade paperback edition a year after the initial release. As a result, the hardcovers have always been hard to find — great news for collectors, to be sure. Not so great for anyone else.

So, dear everyone else: This edition is for you. Enjoy!

[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum

I continue to be astonished by the sheer volume of the junk email I get from spam journals and organizers of spamferences, and by the utter linguistic ineptitude of the unprincipled hucksters responsible for the spam. Every month I get dozens of new-journal announcements, calls for papers, requests for conference attendance, subscription offers, and so on. Today I got a prestige invitation based flatteringly on my published work. It began thus:

After careful evaluation and reading your article published in Journal of Logic, Language and Information entitled "On the Mathematical Foundations of", we decided to send you this invitation.

Clearly the careful evaluation and reading did not enable them to get to the end of my title (it does not end in of). And what was the invitation?

In light of your remarkable achievements in Critical Care, we would like to invite you to join the Editorial Board of Journal of Nursing.

Nursing. I'm an expert in critical care nursing, apparently. If the email were not so clearly machine-generated, I could almost have seen it as a cruel allusion to my year of looking after my wife Tricia before she died last year. But no, it's not that. They claim to have ascertained my distinction in critical care from their careful reading of a paper of which the full title is "On the mathematical foundations of Syntactic Structures." It's a technical examination of the formalism of Noam Chomsky's first book on syntactic theory (Journal of Logic, Language and Information 20: 277-296, 2011).

Almost all of the hundreds and hundreds of new rip-off journals who send me this sort of spam are based in China. This one "is supported and partially financed by the hosting organization, Beijing Spring City Educational Publications Research Center."

The support of this research center has allowed the publishers "to reduce the OA article publishing charges from $800 to $150 (additional $50 applied if print version is required)." So if you want to see your article about nursing in print, you send them $200. And I suspect that when choosing whether to publish your paper they will exercise all the care they showed in reading my syntax paper and confirming my credentials in critical care.

There are many things to worry about in connection with the birth of flocks of spam journals, scores at a time: confusion for students, pollution of the scientific literature, degrading of the concept of a refereed journal, publication of ill-reviewed junk science, and (if even a few libraries occasionally take out misguided subscriptions to these crap journals) waste of library budgets.

Gross syntactic errors in promotional material provide an almost infallible indicator of spamhood in a journal. Not many journals send unsolicited email to advertise themselves, but the few promotional emails I occasionally get from proper journals are always at least literate. Whereas this one says:

Our journal, Journal of Nursing, is a new journal which urgently needs professional like you to join our editorial board and help and support the journal to a healthy grow.

I hope none of you professional will support it to a healthy grow. You don't need to be much of a sleu to know they are not telling the tru; their journal is not wor one twelf of the paper that it costs an extra $50 to be printed on.

[syndicated profile] bruce_schneier_feed

Posted by Bruce Schneier

A security flaw in Infineon smart cards and TPMs allows an attacker to recover private keys from the public keys. Basically, the key generation algorithm sometimes creates public keys that are vulnerable to Coppersmith's attack:

While all keys generated with the library are much weaker than they should be, it's not currently practical to factorize all of them. For example, 3072-bit and 4096-bit keys aren't practically factorable. But oddly enough, the theoretically stronger, longer 4096-bit key is much weaker than the 3072-bit key and may fall within the reach of a practical (although costly) factorization if the researchers' method improves.

To spare time and cost, attackers can first test a public key to see if it's vulnerable to the attack. The test is inexpensive, requires less than 1 millisecond, and its creators believe it produces practically zero false positives and zero false negatives. The fingerprinting allows attackers to expend effort only on keys that are practically factorizable.

This is the flaw in the Estonian national ID card we learned about last month.

The paper isn't online yet. I'll post it when it is.

Ouch. This is a bad vulnerability, and it's in systems -- like the Estonian national ID card -- that are critical.

[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

Hey, you know how irritated you get when your internet access goes down? Elizabeth Bonesteel gets you. And so does her latest novel, Breach of Containment. She’s here to explain — provided your connection doesn’t suddenly go out…


We live in the woods, and that means, among other things, we have the crappiest internet service in the state*.

(*This almost certainly isn’t true. I’ve heard rumors there are towns in the western part of the state that still rely on dialup. I keep hoping that’s an ugly rumor spread by Verizon to keep us all compliant and grateful.)

People in town rely on a mish-mash of solutions. Ours is a T1 line. It’s slow (1.5 Mb up/down), and when it drops it drops for days. There’s nothing quite like the sensation of seeing Netflix give up the ghost, and then pulling up your web browser to see that progress bar just…stall.

It amazes me how much I’ve come to depend on the net—not just for news and cat videos, but for a sense of connection to the rest of the world. When the line goes down, it’s so easy to imagine there’s nothing out there at all anymore—that the silence will go on forever, and we’ll sit here alone in the woods, never discovering what’s happened to the rest of the world.

Within my lifetime, society has become dependent on instant communication.

Breach Of Containment is set roughly a thousand years in the future, where we’ve colonized a (still pretty damn small) part of the galaxy. Despite the distances, everything is elaborately connected. In addition to a network of government and military communications channels, all monitored and encrypted, there are entirely unregulated data streams over which both reliable and unreliable information fly unfettered. Most of my characters live aboard Galileo, a military starship, and they’re never disconnected from the officers giving orders. Neither are they ever free of consequences when they get creative about interpreting those orders (which happens far more often than it should).

At one point, as I was assembling this book, I thought: what if all that gets cut off? What if I dump them in the soup, and sever their access to intelligence, orders, even news of their families?

Structurally, that idea both simplified and complicated the plot. Breach Of Containment is, in many ways, your traditional are-we-preventing-or-starting-a-war adventure story. Galileo is working in an atmosphere of uncertainty and deceit at this point: some of their orders are legit, some are distractions designed to keep them out of the way of internal government intrigue, and they don’t always know which are which. When the communication channels back to Earth are lost, it suddenly stops mattering which commanding officer is trustworthy and which is a seditious traitor. Losing communications meant my characters didn’t need to waste time figuring out whether or not a bunch of tangential folks we don’t care about are on the right side or not.

But severing communications also let me play with people’s heads, and it’s no secret I love the messy character stuff. I’ve got three principals at this point, and Breach Of Containment begins with all of them stretched thin. Elena, formerly Galileo’s chief of engineering, has been out of the Corps for a year, and is feeling rootless and without purpose. Greg, Galileo’s captain, has been dutifully following orders, but is feeling less and less like his years of service have resulted in making any substantive difference for real people. Jessica, Greg’s now-seasoned second-in-command, sees most clearly the tightrope they’re walking between following potentially erroneous orders and dealing with a massive conspiracy that is almost certainly beyond their ability to stop.

Basically, I made sure everybody was tense and cranky, and then I cut their T1 line.

On top of that, I put them on a timer. There’s an armada headed toward Earth, and the big question is whether they’re intending to help, or to invade the vulnerable planet while nobody can warn them. And the only sources of information my happy crew has got? A retired Admiral who’s a gray-hat at best, a rival government’s starship and her relentlessly cheerful captain, and a nervous emissary who’s delivered a cryptic message that she seems convinced makes perfect sense. (Oh, and a talking box. I always forget the talking box.)

When you have no news and you can’t Google, how do you make your decisions?

Here in the real world, I didn’t have a smartphone until last December. (I’m not a Luddite. I’m just cheap.) Since then, the T1 outages have been far less unnerving. It’s comforting to be able to check Twitter and verify the outage isn’t part of some apocalyptic event. Sometimes I’ll even waste some data on a cat video. But every time, in that few seconds before my Twitter feed comes up, I feel that disorienting sense of being unmoored from the rest of the world. It’s not a great state of mind in which to make important decisions…but it’s not a bad catalyst for a plot.


Breach of Containment: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

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I don't normally blog twice in one day (these days, I'm lucky to post twice in one month), but a nasty thought happened to occur to me, one that's worth sharing. (Thinking nasty thoughts is either an occupational hazard or an occupational fringe benefit for security people---your call...)

I, along with many others, noted that the KRACK flaw in WiFi encryption is a local matter only; the attacker has to be within about 100 meters from the target. That's not quite correct. The attacking computer has to be close; the attacker can be anywhere.

I'm here at home in a Manhattan apartment, typing on a computer connected by wired Ethernet. The computer is, of course, WiFi-capable; if I turn on WiFi, it sees 28 other WiFi networks, all but two of which use WPA2. (The other two are wide open guest networks...) Suppose someone hacked into my computer. They could activate my computer's WiFi interface and use KRACK to go after my neighbors' nets. Better yet, suppose I'm on a low-security wired net at work but am within range of a high-security wireless network.

I'm not certain how serious this is in practice; it depends on the proximity of vulnerable wired computers to interesting WiFi networks. Wired networks are no longer very common in people's houses and apartments, but of course they're the norm in enterprises. If you're a sysadmin for a corporation with that sort of setup, KRACK may be very serious indeed.


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January 2015

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