A to Z Challenge 2013

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Poor Research Makes Me Want To Say Goodbye

I am currently in the middle of reading Dan Brown's book The Lost Symol, and I ran into something that has completely changed my mind about him as an author. I don't think I will ever buy another book by the man.

First off, I know all about the talk, the web sites, the controversy over his books. I once ran into a web link that listed all the things he has supposedly gotten wrong in previous books. But I tried to avoid listening to the Internet hype and enjoy his books. Unfortunately, his latest mistake is one I cannot ignore.

The following excerpt (which I will show you) is a scene where this "computer expert" is trying to find out where the physical location of a document (on the web) is based on it's IP address. An IP address (for the uninitiated) is basically the address of a resource, be it a web page, a computer, a modem, etc. That's a simplification, but hopefully you get the idea. This person has been described as being top notch, a leading expert in her field. Here's what Mr. Brown writes:

Strangely, the file's location was not displaying as a traditional Web address but rather as a numeric Internet Protocol address. "I can't unmask the IP," Trish said. "The domain name's not coming up. Hold on." She pulled up her terminal window. "I'll run a traceroute."

Okay, stop there. Traceroute IS an actual command that can be run on a computer. Mr. Brown did enough research to find that much out. The next section though (a few paragraphs ahead) is where the problem lies.

What the hell? Her trace had stopped before reaching the document's server. Her ping, for some reason, had hit a network device that swallowed it rather than bouncing it back. "It looks like my traceroute got blocked," Trish said. Is that even possible?

This last statement is where the problem lies. You see, while traceroute is a valid computer command, it's a very basic one. Any IT professional worth their salt at least knows about it, and 99% of them would know how to run it. And this character Trish is so computer savvy, she designed (read this as programmed) her own web search tool (which is how she found this secretive document). Wouldn't she have better tools at her disposal for discovery than a simple traceroute command?

What's worse is the fact that if you google "block traceroute", you'll find out just how easy it is to perform this task. You see, there are different ports (think portals or doorways) for every type of computer communication. Certain types of email for example, use port 25. Traceroute also uses a specific port. All you have to do is block or turn off that port (on a firewall or the web server itself), and no data will ever be allowed through. This is actually a common security practice, to turn off ports that you don't want to be used. Trish should know this, if she is as computer savvy as the author describes. She shouldn't be wondering to herself whether it's even possible to block a traceroute command.

Now, I can understand when an author makes a mistake. It happens. But in this case, Mr. Brown took the time to research computer terms enough to use a valid command in his story. But he couldn't take the time to make sure he is using it in the proper context, with believable results? He couldn't take the time to make sure his computer expert character knows what she is talking about? That's inexcusable, considering how easy it is to find this information out. There are also other ways he could have handled this, without it being so wrong. He could have generalized about the tools she was using, indicating that they were her own personally designed tools. Then when things didn't work, it would make more sense that she is completely surprised.

Maybe it bugs me so much because I am an IT professional by trade. But I think it's more than that. He is supposed to be a celebrated and experienced author, and this is a pitiful mistake that should have been corrected.

How do you feel about mistakes you find in books you read? What would it take for you to decide not to read any more of a particular author's books? And am I being way too nitpicky here?


WindyA said...

Oh gee, this is such a pet peeve for me! Total turn off on the author, because it comes across like they couldn't be bothered to spend the time to get things right beyond just using generally terminology to "sound good". What a waste.

Jamie D. said...

I think I must be in a pretty small minority here...but this sort of thing just doesn't bother me. Most of the time, I don't even catch it. I get engrossed in the overall story more than the details, and considering I'm in IT too and don't even remember this part, that tells you how focused I was on the overall picture, rather than the details. Of course with this particular thing, the average reader, editor, agent and publisher would have no clue it was wrong, so it's easy to see how it slipped by. It's a very specific knowledge set to have.

I normally consider *everything* in a work of fiction to be...well...fiction. It bugs me a little when large things are out of place, but for the most part, I don't sweat the small stuff. If I do notice it, I give myself a moment to feel superior that I knew otherwise, and move on. Normally I enjoy the book anyways.

I like Dan Brown - his stories are engaging and fast paced for me. But like I said, I'm in the minority (among writers). :-)

Eric said...

Windy - I completely agree with you. I actually like it when authors use the correct terminology. It tells me they put forth the extra effort to immerse you fully into their world. What Dan Brown has done here is (IMHO) inexcusable.

Jamie - I understand what you're saying, but the thing that bugs me most is this: He took the time to figure out the right term for the concept, but didn't take the time to really understand what the term entails. Had he just glossed over the idea with a fictional or generalized term, I probably wouldn't have been pulled out of the story. When he used the proper term, it put things in a certain context for me. Then he got it completely wrong. Now granted, I do have the background in this so of course I know better than maybe the average reader. But if you think about it, it's insulting to the intelligence. The author figures either (a) people are not educated enough about the subject for it to matter or (b) those who do know the truth should just ignore this extreme alteration of reality, in a book that is otherwise based on real things. If his book took place in an alternate reality than our own, I could see it as justified. But he goes to great pains elsewhere to tie the story to "this" world, so he should have done a better job with his research. Sorry if this comes out as really grumpy, but yeah, it bugs me alot.

Elana Johnson said...

I think it totally depends on who you are. If I'd have read that, I wouldn't have thought about it twice -- because I'm NOT an IT person. But when I read about schools and classes and teachers and schedules and anything related to education, if it's not "just right" then I'm bugged.

So yeah. You're not being nitpicky. You're just being the IT guy -- and authors who want to use things that are specific should research them well enough that ANYONE can pick up the book and be satisfied.

Which is why I write fantasy and science fiction.


beth said...

OMG, I feel that way all the time about Southern books. I've lived in the south all my life, and when people get it wrong (usually with cliches and stereotypes) it drives me NUTS.

I *hate* when those details are wrong!!!

jjdebenedictis said...

You now know how all the people who squawked about him getting other details wrong feel. :)

If you're an expert, it bugs you. If you're not, you don't notice. The vaaaaaaast majority of Dan Brown's readers will not notice.

I Wonder Wye said...

No -- I am a writer and editor and it's extremely offensive when I find errors. I have stopped reading a few books and with manuscripts, I'll send them back with a note that they can re-send it when they're serious. I don't have time to clean up dumb mistakes. I don't get the whole Dan Brown thing anyway. Half-assed writer. Airport read. I remember trying to read the sequel to GWTW when I was in my 20s and throwing it against a wall when it was revealed 'Scarlet had never been on a boat before' -- WTF? New Orleans honeymoon? HELLO? Where was the editor?? The industry has gotten damn lazy....okay I am climbing off the soap box now. Thanks for the rant.....

Mr. Knucklehead said...

Since you asked, I think you're being a bit nit-picky, but it's understandable because he screwed up in your area of expertise. I'm not a techie, and had I read that book, I'd never have noticed the error and it wouldn't have impacted my enjoyment of his book.

Still, though, being a best selling author should warrant more thorough research.

Icy Sedgwick said...

I really hate it when I come across errors in books. I have a degree in art history, and some of his descriptions of the works of art he uses makes me cringe. But Dan Brown's not the only author who steps outside his area of expertise. I love Stephen King to bits, but his depiction of the menstrual cycle in Carrie just proved that men shouldn't write about that particular experience and it actually put me a little off the book as a whole (if you're wondering, it was his description about blood 'flowing' down a character's inner thigh - if that were the case, that character would be better off going to a hospital). A little research goes a long way!

cassandrajade said...

It is interesting how when it issomething you have a lot of knowledge about it bothers you more when people get it wrong - that might explain why I hated the movie Troy so much as they claimed they based it off of the Illiad but they clearly never read the book.
I think in this instance Dan Brown might have been better off being less specific. His IT expert could have just said she was going to try to find the location and then said she was blocked and left the details out of the story. Unless she was talking to another IT person it would make sense for her to be generic as the person she is talking to here probably wouldn't understand what she had said anyway and then there is less chance of him getting it wrong.
I like to give authors some room - we all get things wrong - but sometimes you just have to wonder why they couldn't have found the right information.

Barrie said...

I have a friend who wrote to a published mystery author because in one of the author's books, she had a character who was knowledgeable about firearms, load his gun the wrong way. I think some details bother some of us more than others. And, hey, thanks for the visit + comment! :)

elizabeth mueller said...

Yikes! I can see how that would be a major turn off.

Being a writer, I would hope that I'd cover all the basis--how would I know if I haven't? How? I think it can be daunting to pretend that I have truly experienced it to make it sound real enough!

What do you think?