Beware of stainless steel rat

Beware of stainless steel rat

Loose cables is an irreverent look behind the scenes at testing computer products, in particular at IDG's InfoWorld lab in the US. Our insights are gleaned during the long hours spent testing, and even longer hours spent sorting through outrageous vendor claims and press releases. Some of the insights are technical, some are political, and some are just funAuthor Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat books, irreverent and humorous tales of crime in a sanitised future, have always been popular among technical types. As the inimitable Jim DiGriz explains it, when society moved from the forests to wood houses to the polished stainless steel buildings of the future, the "rats" of society - con men, bank robbers, and so on - were forced to adapt themselves, producing a new variety of Stainless Steel Rat.

Well, with all of the talk of new computing paradigms, cross-platform technologies, distributed computing, and so on, we are wondering about the future of the humble computer virus.

Humble, we say, because most viruses are DOS-based and haven't adapted well to the Windows world, let alone the world of the future. But with the rise of the Internet and the aforementioned technologies, we think it's only a matter of time before we start seeing smart, distributed, network-aware, cross-platform viruses.

The way we see it, the only reason it hasn't happened yet is because anyone capable of doing it is too busy working on the latest and greatest push-based, cross-platform 2000 tool. But that can't go on for too much longer. We're taking bets on how long it'll be before we start seeing Stainless Steel Viruses.

We're just waiting to hear the phrase: "The network is the virus."

Well, not yet. But who needs actual products or market acceptance when we all know that the true sign of a technology's maturity is who's buying the start-ups?

With Bay Networks snapping up Rapid City, we're expecting to see the acquisitions come thick and fast, and we don't mean the two older Ethernet technologies here.

We're just wondering why nobody has started some sort of betting line for who'll buy whom next. In this industry, it seems like a natural: "I'll give you 10-to-1 against Microsoft buying Wolf Mountain, or whatever they're called these days," or "Five gets you six that Cisco buys a gigabit vendor by December."

Abort, retry, ignore. Headline writers are a breed apart, if you'll excuse the choice of words. Leave it to a news service such as Reuters to headline an article about non-US FDA-approved drugs that induce abortions as "FDA Warns About Net Abortion Kits".

Kits for aborting the Net? We imagine that story would spark even more controversy.

At first blush, Novell's recent announcement of language-recognition software seems like a real boon to those of us frustrated by those foreign-language pages that turn up in our Web searches. Novell's Collexion Language Identifier uses pattern recognition to quickly identify a language so that a user can select a dictionary or translator.

Language barrier

It's a good idea - in theory. Few of the myriad translation engines we've used on the World Wide Web give us accurate or near-accurate results, and we'd rather not hunt painstakingly through a foreign language dictionary to piece together a document that may not be relevant to our search. We've got a way to go before it's useful.

It is interesting to note, though, that the technology uses a pattern-recognition technique that's very similar to a virus-detection technology being developed in IBM's research laboratories. We always knew artist Laurie Anderson's assertion that "Language is a Virus" would someday be proven true.

RealVideo mess, Web copyright woes. Progressive networks has a mess on its hands with RealVideo - and we don't mean the three half-baked films Spike Lee shot to demonstrate it. (We can only assume that when Spike learned his promotional pieces would stream over the plain old telephone service, he figured it would be OK to phone them in.) Fortunately for Progressive, this problem falls squarely into the sphere where large high-tech companies are best-equipped - the legal department.

We were amusing ourselves recently with a little domain-name craps, typing into a URL box and seeing what popped up. Even in an era of .com hoarding, throwing snake eyes ("The server does not have a DNS entry") isn't that hard.

But Lady Luck smiled on us when we tried Instead of Progressive, the name is registered to RealVideo Productions, a small Minnesota-based visual communications company. Bob Schuster, its president, says he has tried to sell his rights to the name, including the Web address, to Progressive, but it hasn't bitten.

There's another party in this trademark triangle, though: Mitchell Block, president of California-based Direct Cinema, a film and video distributor that has been using Real Video as an imprint label since 1989. Although Block registered Real Video as a business name in Los Angeles County and lists it with 1-800 directory services, he says Progressive told him they plan to trademark the moniker.

Block says Progressive both threatened to sue him if he uses the term Real Video on any Web-based endeavours and offered to buy all of Block's rights to the name. Block is considering the offer, but even if he agrees, Progressive would still be left without the domain. Time to pick up a shovel and clean out the barn. Call in the attorneys.

Progressive, through its legal department, would not comment on the situation other than to assert its right to the RealVideo trademark.

However, it seems obvious that, regarding the domain name, the company didn't do its homework: Schuster says he registered in 1995.

The dispute between Direct Cinema and Progressive exemplifies how the Internet has further gummed up the tangled workings of trademark and copyright law.

On the World Wide Web, every business is national (international, really), and similar but independent names are going to butt heads. Unfortunately, in situations such as this, he who has the most lawyers usually wins.

Fire's cool. You may have seen the latest advertisement that uses a little Photoshop magic to burn something. The ad is for Hitachi's impressive-looking VisionBook Elite, and what's burning are the backsides of four corporate types scurrying through an office that obviously doesn't have a sprinkler system.

There must be a firebug at work in some media-planning agency - first the flaming chair, now the people who sat on it.

MetaSpy in the house of love. One of our favourite Internet search resources, MetaCrawler (, has just come out of the voyeur closet and invites you to do the same. It has set up a page called MetaSpy that allows you to see the 10 most recent search requests submitted by users. Because the page reloads at 15-second intervals, you can be assured of the greatest rubbernecking value for your mouse clicks.

Most of the searches are pretty mundane: "plastics supplier", "currency exchange rates", "Serbian postal codes", and a steady stream of queries for all things pornographic. However, it takes only a few minutes of peeping - and we're not making any of this up - before some truly bizarre entries flash by. What, pray tell, could people searching for a "Sony implantable" be seeking? Perhaps they want to skip high-definition TV altogether and have The Simpsons beamed directly into their brains in all its coruscated delight?

Maybe seekers of "Kentucky marriage licences" are no longer content with major appliances on their verandas and are now turning wandering eyes to their relatives. And the thought of people pursuing a "map, Rochester, NY" is so macabre, we don't want to think about it. We can only hope they want the nearest route out.

If nothing else, MetaSpy will confirm what you've always believed: people are indeed laughing at you behind your back.

It's funny to think that, on any given network, there's much more combined horsepower sitting idle on users' desktops than in all of the servers combined. We can't really harness that horse-power for collective efforts today, but that won't be the case in the near future.

Check out for the Bovine RC5 cracking effort, which is significant for two reasons. First, it aims to demonstrate that 56-bit encryption is woefully insufficient. From DESCHALL's crack of 56-bit DES at RSA's DES Challenge and the inevitable RC5 crack from the Bovine effort, that seems fairly obvious.

The second reason this effort is so important is because it demonstrates the future of distributed computing.

Today, the Bovine code runs on every major operating system and hardware platform and allows otherwise-wasted CPU cycles to go toward an Internet-wide project. Bovine's next-generation client should be able to work on several different projects, including the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search effort to find Mersenne primes. (For more on that, try the beatThe potential for end users to donate their idle CPU cycles to a worthy cause is surely just the beginning.

The real revolution will come when the line between desktop OS and network OS is blurred, and machines in a corporate environment will pitch in just by their very nature.

Why have a central server scan 10 million rows in a table when 10,000 clients could scan 1000 rows each in much less time? Naturally, there are some security concerns involved, and this will complicate accounting for some businesses. But that kind of stuff can and will be sorted out.

The implications of all this are obvious. How long will it be before network servers become more like traffic cops than workhorses?

One question to ponder: where do network computers fit into this picture, given their intentionally limited client-side processing? More on that later.

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