Writer’s Research Protip — Don’t Hack the Mainframe

If you’ve ever worked in a field that gets represented at times through popular mediums such as television, movies, or books, there are going to be finer points that you’ll notice the writers are getting wrong.

You probably know what I’m talking about.  If you were in the military and you see people in a movie doing something that would’ve gotten you murdered by your squad leader, it makes you cringe.  If you’re a police officer and you read a novel where the detective routinely does things no self-respecting cop would do, it probably takes you out of the story.  For me, one of those sore spots is information technology.

A couple weeks ago I watched all five seasons of Fringe (don’t judge me).  I really liked the show, but in some of the earlier seasons they kept repeating a phrase that comes up in popular fiction.  A phrase that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and kills some of the fun of the story.  Several times, members of the Fringe team directed each other to, “Hack the mainframe.”

If you are a writer, or other creative professional involved with storytelling, please use caution when invoking this admittedly awesome sounding phrase.

The thing is, a mainframe computer system may not be what you’ve been led to believe it is.  Mainframes are large, powerful, computers that have been used by businesses for decades.  When most characters in popular TV and movies say “hack the mainframe,” they’re referring to activities that a mainframe really wouldn’t be used for.

For example, let’s say our heroes are tracing the source IP of a criminal, or they’re trying to get into the confidential files of a doctor who’s a suspect in a case.  Maybe they’re trying to get a customer list from a website.  Regardless, in almost all of these cases, the writers would have been better off just using the generic term “Server” instead of mainframe.  Server is a label given to a computer which has the task of holding (serving) information for others to use.  Using this term will be much more accurate, and it can apply to very wide variety of computers.

The other issue is that mainframes have been in declining use for decades.  These computers are tanks.  For the most part they are powerful, reliable, and secure.  Unfortunately, they’re very expensive and lack the scalability of many modern midrange, distributed computing systems.  Because of this, most new technology companies and businesses wouldn’t have a mainframe in their datacenter.  It wouldn’t make sense for them to purchase older, expensive technology like that.

I know, saying, “Hack the mainframe,” sounds wicked sweet.  I agree.  So, if you really want to use this term, use it in a situation that would be more believable.  Mainframes would be used more commonly by old, monolithic corporations such as large banks/financial institutions, airlines, and governments.  If your characters are after data that is contained on a mainframe, it would likely be information (records of some type) stored in a database.  To hack in, your computer-whiz character should also have a working knowledge of zOS administration and older technologies such as JCL, Cobol, and C.  These technologies aren’t taught very often in today’s computer science programs, so keep that in mind as well.

That’s all.  I hope this helps out another writer while they’re crafting their next amazing story.

The Acceptance Letter I’ve Been Waiting For

Mr. Marsh,

Thank you for your recent submission.  I mean that.  Thank you.  Never before in the twenty years that I’ve been in the publishing industry have I read a piece so moving that it brought me to tears.  That’s not a euphemism, either.  As I finished your piece I found myself overcome with raw emotion; sobbing from a feeling of sadness and joy I never before thought possible.  I hope that doesn’t make you feel awkward.  But, it is honest, and if there’s anything your writing has taught me, it’s that we must always be true to ourselves.

The truth is that my life had been steadily losing its meaning over the past several years.  The pain of a mundane existence coupled with the lack of a promise of improved circumstances for myself, my family, or society as a whole, has drained the color from the world around me.  Until I read the monumental tour-de-force you graced me with, I hadn’t realized just how far into the downward spiral of depression I had fallen.  When I exhaled upon reading the final, wondrous, line of prose, the air ran sweet across my tongue and a vigor I hadn’t felt in recent memory permeated my bones.  Immediately, I called my cocaine dealer and told him that I wouldn’t be needing anymore of his poison; that I was now high on life.  I broke things off with my mistress and I’m trying to reconnect with my estranged children.  Your writing has saved me, sir, and for that you have my eternal gratitude and devotion.

That part when the Ewok break-dance crew helps a young Bruce Lee reunite his family and finally master the elusive secrets of Wing Chun?  I still get shivers, Mr. Marsh.  I still get shivers.  We may have some licensing issues to deal with by using the name Ewok, but, don’t worry too much.  If Disney won’t play ball we’ll just call them Beewoks or Leewoks, or something.  I hope that doesn’t compromise your artistic integrity.

My only criticism of the manuscript is that the one hundred and fifty page car chase through the San Francisco hills was not long enough.  You have a real knack for these scenes, and I have to tell you, we need more of it.  I hope I’m not being dramatic when I say that the world will continue to be a soulless machine filled with hollow faces until we get this book into print.

I hope that I’m not being presumptuous when I refer to you and I as, “we.”  I realize that you haven’t signed an agreement with me yet, and that you’ll have your choice of representation.  I’m going to level with you.  The other literary agents and I have been talking, and there’s been some disagreement about who will have the honor of being your representative — your champion and guide — in the publishing industry forthwith.  There has been talk of convening a special session of the Grand Council of Literary Agents to deal with the matter, as it’s quickly becoming an item of contention among us.  I can’t say too much, as our society is a secret one, but, I may have to duel for the honor of serving you.

Please, don’t worry too much for me.  Pain is temporary.  Even scars will fade.  The glory of being your agent?  That will transcend the ages.

Sincerely,

Noah Juan Ever

Literary Agent

Book Review – Ocean of Dust

Fantasy readers, don’t pass up this engrossing tale.

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I ganked the Amazon thumbnail – please don’t sue.

In Ocean of Dust, we follow Lissa, a young girl forced into a life of slavery aboard a mysterious vessel which traverses the world’s oceans.  As possibilities of escape diminish, she’s caught in a foreign culture full of strong, conflicting personalities, and strange traditions.  Lissa makes allies and enemies alike as she explores the world aboard ship, and struggles to discover the source of the strange influence the ocean itself has over her.

What I enjoyed most about this novel was the seamless melding of story and world-building.Ing’s world is unique, well thought out, and wholly alive.  Better yet, it’s shown to us at an even pace, letting the reader drink in and absorb the unique properties and physics of the universe as we adventure with Lissa.  Colorful characters populate the story, each one with their own distinctive voice and part to play.

Many publishers are putting their eggs in the urban fantasy basket, or else staying to the tried and true swords-and-horses subgenre.  Ing’s story doesn’t fit easily into either one of these categories, which, for me, made it a welcome departure from the norm.  It works as a YA tale, as the characters and plot will be relatable to young readers.  I definitely wouldn’t pigeonhole the story as a “YA only” read, though.  Adults who have enjoyed series such as Harry Potter and His Dark Materials would be in good company here.

The conclusion of the story is satisfying, while hinting at the possibility of returning Lissa’s story to us again in the future.  I hope this is the case.