Soapbox Part 9

November 23rd, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

Here’s part 9 of Soapbox (unedited, as usual). If you are new here and want to read the whole story, you can skip back to part one, or read the entire thing as one page. Enjoy.

When Ethan woke up the next morning there was a blinking notification on his phone. He tapped it and it put a new destination on the map, labeled ‘Garden’. He started the coffee maker and went back to his room to get dressed.

“I guess I’m really doing this,” he said to the empty room.

He pawed his way to the back of his closet, past the plastic wrapped interview suit that he had placed in front of everything else as a sign of optimism but that was gradually turning into an icon of despair as the shiny garment bag was dulled by the gathering dust. After that were work clothes, khakis and polos and button-ups. Finally he found a couple of pairs of jeans. He looked at them side by side and picked the more ragged of the two. He pulled a plain T-shirt out of a drawer and tried to shake the gravity-pressed wrinkles out of it.

In the mirror, he looked completely nondescript, he couldn’t have picked himself out of a crowd. In part, his outfit’s plainness made him feel safe, but it also reminded him of how desperate he had been to fit in, to the point where he had been unwilling to attach any sort of statement to himself even through something as transient as clothing. Was the conformity that he had embraced any better than conformity that was pushed on someone by an overbearing authority? Was it worse?

He filled his travel mug with seven parts coffee to one part sugar to two parts powdered creamer and started making his way to the digital pushpin on his phone’s map.

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Soapbox Part 8

November 21st, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

Here’s part 8 of Soapbox (unedited, as usual). If you are new here and want to read the whole story, you can skip back to part one, or read the entire thing as one page. Enjoy.

He was skeptical, but kept it to himself. “Where are these gardens?” he asked. He looked at the towering buildings all around, and couldn’t picture gardens fitting in anywhere.

“Some of them are an rooftops, some are in empty office buildings. There’s probably one close to where you live,” she said. “Do you want to sign up for a shift, then?”

“Sure.”

“When are you available?”

“I can start tomorrow, I guess.” If he was going to do this, there was no point in putting it off.

“Excellent. Let me scan your wallet and the system will figure out where to put you,” she said. He held his wallet out to her and she pointed her phone at it until it beeped. “You should get a message that will have a link to determine where you want to work in a minute or two. Shifts usually start around at ten in the morning this time of year. Wear something comfortable that you don’t mind getting dirty.”

“I’ll leave the interview clothes in the closet,” he said. She laughed.

“Have fun tomorrow,” she said. “And I’m Bridget, by the way.”

She stuck out her hand and he shook it. He would expected the Bazaar people to be more like stereotypical hippies, saying “groovy” and hugging all the time, but the repeated hand shaking made it clear that he was still in the City. He wondered if it was deliberate.

“Ethan,” he said.

“See you around, Ethan.”

Two bits are new here. The first is the presence of community gardens in an urban environment. Although this is something that is already happening, I think that it is important to explore a bit.  Cities are highly dependent upon a very complex network of supply lines, which makes them vulnerable. Add to that the fact that they can be difficult to leave when things go bad (think Hurricane Katrina) and it you begin to realize how important it is to have some sort of resilience. Keep in mind that I’m not sure of the viability of producing even a sizable fraction of a city’s food within city limits, but some is better than none. The second bit that I brought up was the idea of ad hoc assignment of labor and resources. The Bazaars would need to be extremely flexible to survive in their environment, and this simply would not be possible with traditional resource allocation.

Despite the holiday, I will attempt to keep up my usual Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, but apologies in advance if it doesn’t work out.

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Soapbox Part 7

November 18th, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

Here’s part 7 of Soapbox (unedited, as usual). If you are new here and want to read the whole story, you can skip back to part one, or read the entire thing as one page. Enjoy.

Some part of his mind knew that she was waiting for him to say something, but he was transfixed by the sign. The words were handwritten in black marker, but they might as well have been flashing neon. It had been so long since he had held a real job that he had forgotten what the possibility felt like.

“So,” he began. “How does this work?”

“You do stuff and we pay you. Pretty simple, really,” she said.

“That’s not–”

“I know. It’s weird, isn’t it? The idea that your time might be valuable? It takes some getting used to,” she said with a reassuring smile.

“What sort of stuff do people do here?” he asked.

“Most of it involves taking care of the basics: food, shelter, that sort of thing. Beyond that we have the second level stuff: people scouting for new locations, security, doing outreach, and stuff like that,” she said. “Your bitcoin wallet stores your R rating for each Bazaar that you are a part of, which determines the sort of stuff you can do. The more stuff you do, the higher your R rating.”

He remembered seeing the R value on his dashboard when he set up his wallet. “So I’m at a 1, right?” he asked and she nodded yes. “So where does that put my options?”

“The only options for this week are working in the gardens. Next week you can sign up for maintenance duties or providing shelter, if you want,” she said. He really didn’t want to work in the gardens, and it must have been plain on his face, because she continued. “Don’t worry, it isn’t that bad. Even after we get to a higher level, most of us still spend time in the gardens every week.”

No new technology for you today, but the R rating thing is stolen inspired from Danial Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom books, which are an excellent read. See you Monday.

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Soapbox Part 6

November 16th, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

Here’s part 6 of Soapbox (unedited, as usual). If you are new here and want to read the whole story, you can skip back to part one, or read the entire thing as one page. Without further ado:

“I really don’t know. I just found this place,” Ethan said.

“Ah. Welcome. If you got a Kit, then you have more than enough to keep you occupied for the next couple of days. Eventually you’ll want to get a weather station, though.”

“Why would I need to buy my own weather station?” Ethan asked.

“Sorry, jargon. A weather station is what we call one of these,” the man said, holding up a grey plastic box the size of a pack of cigarettes. It was featureless, with no plugs, switches, or lights. “It passively counts how many drones are within a radius of a few hundred feet and pings your phone or a server of your choosing. There are about a thousand of them spread throughout the City, more every day, and they function as a sort of early warning system.”

“That’s pretty cool,” Ethan said.

“Yeah, it works pretty well, but it still leaves us vulnerable to lo-tech raids. And those are expensive enough to make them scarce.”

“I’ll let you get back to your project, thanks,” Ethan said.

“No problem, see you around,” the man said.

After the electronics stall, there were more food stalls, and people selling everything from clothing and books to bitcoin exchange stations. Finally, he found a booth with a sign that said simply: WORK. The woman inside saw him coming and stood up, smiling.”New guy, eh?” she asked, her words having the rounded edges of a Canadian accent. “You’re probably wondering what we want you to do, now that you’ve seen the rest, right?

“Indeed,” Ethan said.

The only thing of note here is that John Robb has a new post about the expanding use of drones, both software and hardware, well worth reading. I agree with him that the best way to combat them is to build resilient communities, but as a step in that direction, we will have to find ways of dealing with them on a daily basis until our communities are strong enough to counteract their dystopian influence. I introduced a new gadget in this segment, the Weather Station, named after the off-the-shelf weather stations that you can buy for your house that will monitor conditions and log them to your computer. The idea is that drones will need to regularly communicate with those in command to be of any use and although that communication will likely be encrypted, it will be detectable and therefore a suitable target for aggregation into useful data streams.

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Soapbox Part 5

November 14th, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

Here’s the newest (unedited, as usual) installment of Soapbox. If you are new here and want to read the whole story, you can skip back to part one, or read the entire thing as one page. Without further ado:

“How many Bazaars are there? Why haven’t I heard of them before?” Ethan asked.

“Hundreds, maybe more. And how would you have heard about us? We try to stay below the radar,” John said. He glanced down at his watch. “Listen, I need to get some other stuff done? Any more questions before I go?”

“I assume that a lot of them have been answered in FAQs already, so I won’t worry about it too much,” Ethan said, and John turned to leave. “One more thing, will BazOS run my phone?”

John turned back and slapped his forehead with his palm. “Oh yeah, forgot to mention, it will run your phone, too. That’s how most of us use it, at least.”

“Thanks. I’ll just wander around for a bit, if you don’t mind.”

“No problem, and welcome,” John said before heading off into the crowd.

Ethan found an empty table and sat down. He removed his phone’s case and then the back cover and battery so that he could insert the BazOS card. After replacing everything, he restarted the phone. It came up with a setup screen that prompted him to set three unlock patterns, one which would take him to BazOS, one which would take him to the normal phone OS, and one which would wipe the SD card and load the normal phone OS.

He booted into BazOS. It was a fairly standard looking smartphone distribution so he didn’t spend much time with it. He pulled out his bitcoin wallet and scanned it with the phone. It brought up a bitcoin app and asked him to create a pin for the account by connecting the dots on a grid. It took a few tries for him to create a pattern that was complex enough to satisfy the app, and after he had repeated it a couple of times he was done. After he had gotten everything set up, he slipped the phone back into his pocket and started to wander around the stalls that surrounded the Bazaar common area.

The first few stalls were what he expected, people selling honey and eggs and vegetables, just like a farmers market. Then he came to a stall that smelled like burning electronics to find a man soldering together a circuit board on a table. Small electronic devices were hanging from clips like Christmas lights.

“What do all of these do?” Ethan asked.

“Electronic countermeasures, mostly, but with sufficient time and funds, I can make whatever you want,” the man behind the table said after he had finished the joint he was soldering. “What are you looking for?”

Not much that needs references in this section, with two exceptions. The first is the bootloader for BazOS. Basically, with Android phones you can create lock screens that force you to recreate a pattern on a 3×3 grid in order to unlock the phone. If you had illegal software on your phone and the authorities wanted to see your phone, you couldn’t get away with telling them that you forgot your password, hence the decoy and self-destruct options. The second is the pin for the bitcoin wallet, because complex pattern is likely to be both more secure and easier to remember than a string of numbers (although I’m not a security expert, so I may be wrong on this). In any case, hope you enjoyed the story, more will be posted on Wednesday and Friday.
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Soapbox part 4

November 10th, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

You know how yesterday I told you that I would be updating Soapbox on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays? Well, I lied. What I should have said is that I will be adopting that schedule as of next week due to the holiday on Friday which will probably keep me away from my computer for the most part. As usual this post is both unedited and being added to the Soapbox page. In any case here is the fourth installment of Soapbox:

John ignored the confused look on Ethan’s face and led him around the perimeter of the Bazaar. In short order, Ethan had acquired an SD card, a flexible plastic card printed with a QR code, and about a thousand unanswered questions.

“So why don’t the drones come in here?” Ethan asked after the brief tour was finished.

“We hacked the map that they use for their patrols. We can’t change too much or they’ll notice, but making it so that the drones ignore an alleyway seems to fly under their radar,” John said. “And as to your next question, we know you’re not a cop because all of your RFIDs read Civ and you don’t look like you are trying to fit in with what the cops think we all look like.”

“OK, so what is this stuff, then?” Ethan asked, holding out the thumb drive and the card.

“The SD card is our custom Linux distribution BazOS. Plug it in and it will attempt to connect to our mesh network and if that fails, it will rout all of your activity through anonymizing servers. The card is our currency. It’s a link to a bitcoin wallet. It’s how you pay for stuff at Bazaars. It is preloaded with 50 credits that have been donated by the community, but you can earn more by selling stuff or doing things.”

“Why does the wallet have a JCPenny logo on it, then?” Ethan asked, holding up the plastic card.

“If you get arrested, and they scan the code, it will show up as a coupon. The actual wallet information is encrypted into the coupon information,” John said.

“Clever.”

“Not our idea, really. If you look at the library on your BazOS card, you can find out more about it in the file about steganography,” John said.

“What is this, Sweden? I just show up and you give me things? Don’t people steal from you? How do you know that I won’t just turn around and go to the cops?” Ethan asked, the questions coming out as a constant stream of words

.”I don’t have a perfect answer,” John said. “But the fact is, most people want to do the right thing. Welcoming you with open arms is far more effective a deterrent to theft or betrayal than secrecy and suspicion. Being closed off to the world keeps you safe, but it also keeps you small and powerless. All we ask is that you keep the SD card hidden and don’t leave it in your computer when you aren’t using it.”

Lots of fun stuff in here, perhaps I should add an appendix for things like TOR services, QR codes, and Steganography. All of which are real things, by the way.

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Soapbox part 3

November 9th, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

Here’s part 3 for you (usual caveats: blah blah unedited blah):

He sat down at his computer, but did not touch the keyboard. He reached for it, but withdrew his hand. He repeated the process several times, each time stopping short of actually using the machine. Finally, he stood back up, frustrated. The idea of surfing the net while constantly worrying if his browsing would mark him as an enemy of the state wouldn’t take long to drive him insane. Instead he grabbed a shoulder bag and a baseball cap and left his apartment.

The City had not changed after the events of the previous day, only him. It was no surprise. The killing of a bunch of domestic “terrorists” wouldn’t have even made the evening news, and anyone who was watching the indie news would already know the score. He walked, paying more attention to not looking up at the drones hovering overhead than to where he was actually going. Finally, he noticed that he was in an unfamiliar part of the city.

It was a like a pocket neighborhood that had sprung up spontaneously in a wide part of an alleyway that wound between and through a cluster of empty office buildings. In what had once been loading docks and dumpsters was now a microcosmic town. Halfway between an open-air cafe and a farmers market, there were tables everywhere and people selling things out of makeshift booths. None of the furniture matched and ran the gamut from chairs made of milk crates to tables that had clearly once belonged to a Starbucks somewhere. And people. Almost all of the seats were taken up by people eating and drinking, talking or having heated debates.

“Hey,” a man said, walking up to Ethan. “This your first time here?”

“Is it that obvious?” Ethan said. “What is this place?”

“It doesn’t have a name. We just call them Bazaars. I’m John, by the way,” the man said, extending his hand.

“Ethan.” Ethan hesitated for a moment, then reciprocated and shook John’s hand. How did they know he wasn’t a cop? It was then that he noticed that there were no drones overhead.

“Let me show you around and get you a Kit,” John said.

As usual, I’ll be adding this to the story page where you can read the entire thing start to finish however far I’ve gotten should you so desire. In addition, given some more thought, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to post on weekends or every day during the week, so I have decided that I will post on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It should be enough to keep the story going, but not so much that I won’t be able to get anything else done. Also, you may have noticed that I’ve changed the expected length from 1,500 words to 10,000 words. I had forgotten how big the story felt when I was working on Uprising, so I’ll just plan for big right now.
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Soapbox Part 2

November 8th, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

Here’s this morning’s progress on Soapbox:

Ethan unlocked his door as quietly as possible and opened it a crack, pressing his face up to the jam to peek inside. He had spent the night at a diner, drinking the endless coffee refills and trying to think of a way out. No solutions had presented themselves, so he had gone home. Apparently his baseball cap had prevented the drones from getting a facial scan on him, because no one was waiting for him.

He slid in sideways, as though not opening the door all the way would keep him safe. Inside, he locked the door and drew the curtains shut on his two windows. Even that small semblance of safety was enough to push him over the edge. His entire body started to shake, like the jitters after nearly getting in a car accident, but multiplied a thousandfold. The next thing he knew, he was in the bathroom, hunched over the toilet, retching. He cried.

It was mid afternoon when Ethan woke up. He took a long shower, and when he looked himself in the mirror, all he could see was himself looking like he was still in college, sans the blind faith in the job market’s willingness to provide a return on his educational investment. He brushed his teeth, then shaved, then combed his hair, until he looked more presentable than at any time since his last interview, months prior. Somehow, the facade of confidence that he put on helped.

I have added a page that I will append to as I write (although I will continue to post them in this space).
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Soapbox

November 7th, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

On Friday I read an article about John Robb about how the use of drones is changing the realities of warfare. Although it was an excellent read (if a bit depressing, especially in context), I now feel that I have to write more in the Uprising setting, which may slow down my other projects a bit. In any case, I’ve posted the first scene of the second part of Uprising (working title: Soapbox). Keep in mind that it is completely unedited (I wrote it about twenty minutes ago), the final version will be more polished.

Ethan knew he was exposed, dangerously so, standing in the plaza surrounded by others doing the same, his peripheral vision full of drones hanging in the space between the buildings. At the same time, looking at the man standing on top of the long-empty newspaper box, Ethan was transfixed. The man was normal looking, wearing a long sleeved thermal against the chill and his breath hanging in front of his stubbly face.

The man had been speaking for the better part of an hour, drawing an increasing number of drones like flies to a wounded animal. “We no longer live in a democracy! Welcome to the Corporate States of America: of the many, by the few, for the few! We must rise up, take to the streets, take back our country!”

With those words, the spell was broken for Ethan. He turned to run, but it was too late. There was a sound like a bottle rocket whistling through the air, then a sound so loud that his ears registered only static and a concussive wave that knocked him forward onto his stomach. He caught himself with his hands against the rough pavement.

It was as though the blast had knocked his consciousness out of his body. He couldn’t hear anything and the pain in his hands and knees felt like they were happening to someone else. He picked himself up and started running again, shielded by numbness and silence.

It may seem a bit dark, and it is (we are in a bit of a dark time, after all), but I assure you that there will be hope at the end of this segment, just give it a few weeks. I’ll post more scenes as I finish them. Hopefully one every day or two until I am finished. If you have any suggestions or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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