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Branch Off: Beta Readers Wanted

The time has finally come to call beta readers for my second sci-fi novel, whose (provisional?) title is Branch Off. Here is a brief synopsis.

For two years, physicist Sarah Davinson has designed an experiment that could help discover dark matter’s secrets. When she and her team at the largest particle accelerator analyze the data collected, they discover that the outcome is very different from what they were expecting. The anomaly that the accelerator has created throws Geneva into chaos and Sarah will have to make her way through it, catching the chance to find her lost family and keeping tabs on the powers that want to set their hands on the discovery. But the anomaly has gotten quite some people interested—humans and aliens alike—and everybody want their slice of the cake.

The thing is 58,000 words (about 200 6×9″ pages) and I’m now beginning a second editing round which I plan to complete no later than the end of November. Then, the book will be ready for beta reading.

Like last time, what I ask for is:

  • gut response (wow, this book is awesome vs. wow, this book made me want to pry my eyes off their sockets)
  • honest, unbiased, and detailed feedback about:
    • story and plot (is the story engaging? is the plot solid?)
    • characters (are they believable and different from one another? did you empathize with the protagonist?)
    • setting and environment
  • feedback about the prose
  • turnaround time of four weeks, with the final deadline set on January 4th, 2015
  • confidentiality (obviously).

In exchange, I can beta-read a novel of a similar length for you, providing the same feedback I’m asking for mine. I can work on that in December or after March, roughly. Any fiction genre in English or Italian is fine, except romance/erotica.

I already booked copyediting & proofreading for February, so deadlines are set and closing in fast (which is good, otherwise I’d never finish anything). So, if you are willing to lend me a hand, get in touch with me at dario dot solera at outlook dot com.

Fingerprints as Passwords

I’ll list the reasons why using fingerprints as passwords is bad.

  1. You only have 10 of them (assuming you don’t use your feet’s)
  2. Once one is stolen from a device or server, it’s not like you can change it, but it’s gone forever
  3. Someone, without reaching extremes like chopping fingers off, could just force your fingertip onto the reader.

Yes, TouchID is nice and cool and convenient, but the idea of using my body as a password is creepy. Yes, it’s not like there’s a picture of your fingerprint stored somewhere, and yet there is some data derived from it instead, maybe a cryptographic hash.

A good old password that is only in my brain is so much better and safer (for now, at least).

Now, let’s talk about iris identification…

Planning a Novel with Google Maps Engine

One of the biggest problems to tackle when writing a novel is keeping places and times consistent and believable, especially if you have set it on Earth at present day. There are several things to consider, and I’ll name just a few:

  • places where things happen should be real (or realistic)
  • travel times must match actual terrain, urban, and political conditions
  • the style and feeling of urban landscapes should match what’s really out there.

You might be tempted to ask, why can’t I just make it all up?

Because the reader would know, and your work would sound fake – not just fictional. Not all of your readers know everything about the places you’re describing, but in today’s world everyone knows at least something about most places. You know, the Internet. It certainly is a superficial knowledge, maybe even stereotypical, but we all have it.

Enter Google Maps Engine.

Book Planning Map

My next novel is set in Geneva, and from the signs on the map you can certainly guess what’s involved. Now, I’ve never been there, but Google Maps and Street View came to my rescue (these are wonderful times).

But what can you do with Google Maps Engine?

First of all it’s free, then it’s also very polished, and everything is saved automatically (quite obviously, given that we’re talking about Google).

  • You can add pins on a map, draw lines and get their length, and draw closed polygons to get their perimeter and area. This is very useful because you can plan journeys, pin important places, and check distances to avoid that one of your characters believes to be taking a short stroll downhill, while in truth she’s running a marathon up a mountain and across a closed border.
  • You can set colors and shapes, and GME also supports layers, so you can toggle on and off parts of your scheme when it starts getting a little cramped.
  • You can switch between several map modes, most importantly simple map, satellite, and terrain.

Nothing’s perfect, and I miss Street View in GME. Not too bad, you can fall back to regular Google Maps for that. Also, you can’t draw basic geometric shapes like rectangles, circles, and so on. Instead, you must draw connected segments. The result is a little rough but it gets the job done.

I discovered this hidden treasure a bit too late, when the first draft was done already, but just in time to check everything, and find and fix several issues, one of which was rather gross.

What about you? Have you ever used this or other tools to get the geography right in your fiction?

PSA: Security of Folder Downloader for Dropbox

I received this inquiry via email:

Could this app leak my Dropbox password? With the recent news that 6.9million Dropbox passwords have been stolen, I am now wondering how secure this app is.

I think it’s better to repost my answer here, with some additional information for semi-technical people.

The app does not know your password at all, because it uses the official Dropbox app or website to delegate authentication. This method generates a token associated with your account that can be used and accessed only by this app.

That said, an hypothetical attacker could steal the application’s secret key to trick Dropbox into thinking the he is using the app, but then he would have to also steal the token issued to each individual user, and that is obviously impossible as the tokens are stored solely on user’s devices, and Android itself prevents other apps from accessing that kind of data. If the phone is rooted, or is connected via USB in debug mode, then the token becomes accessible, but in that case the attacker would have your device in his hands, which becomes your primary problem.

Moreover, the app does not communicate with anything on the internet except Dropbox. Obviously, this a promise on my side – a gentlemen’s agreement, if you like – but any tech person could verify that with a network sniffer.

A few suggestions to keep your data safe:

  • check apps connected to your Dropbox account and revoke those you don’t need (this is done in the Dropbox’s settings)
  • change the Dropbox password often
  • last but not least, enable two-factor authentication, which makes a password leak ineffective by all practical means (unless the attacker has your phone).

Hope this is a sufficient explanation.

Lisa and Me Available for Pre-order

After going through some precious beta reading and a usual round of editing, Lisa and Me is ready for prime time. This wonderful short story will be available on Amazon Kindle for $0.99 on Thursday, October, 9th, but you can pre-order it today.

Lisa and Me

Pre-order on Amazon

At the same time and throughout the subsequent weekend, White Dwarf One will be free on Kindle (that’s called a cross-promotion, if you ask marketing specialists).

Many thanks to the the impavid Chiara, Stefano, and Luigi for their honest feedback, and to Amy Maddox for her wonderful editing feats.