Assuming Control
(hennhaus: Hard Baud)

(Originally published April 17, 1997)

Assuming Control

I’ll call him ‘Bob’ — primarily because I don’t remember his name. At the time, I was working in Willowdale (now soon to be part of an engorged ‘Toronto’) as a clerk and minor repair-person in a computer and electronics hobbyist store. The stock was mostly surplus electronics — chips, transistors, resistors, capacitors and the like — and the customers were generally electronics students or hobbyists who were either looking for parts for the computers they were building, or parts for circuits they had designed. Bob liked to design.

“Know what this is?” he asked on a slow day, handing me a crumpled piece of paper. The pencilled schematic had been erased and redrawn in several places. Coil . . . tuner . . . probably either a transmitter or a receiver, I guessed. I can follow schematics well enough to put together electronics projects, but I can’t design anything to save my life.

“It’s a transmitter,” he said, before I could open my mouth. “This!”

He took the schematic from me and replaced it with a black plastic box with an unlabeled knob protruding from its surface — the tuner, presumably. A thick wire poked out one end of the box like a mouse’s tail. Bob was beaming.

“It works!” he grinned, retrieving it from my scrutiny.

“Okay . . .” I mumbled, waiting for the punchline. Bob was a regular customer — a technologist — and I would find it surprising only if something he’d slapped together hadn’t worked.

He looked around the floor at the boxes where the more arcane — and mostly unsaleable — parts were buried in comfortable blankets of dust. “Have you got a radio somewhere ’round here?”

We didn’t. We didn’t sell them, and rarely had occasion to repair them. I related this, and Bob emitted a most colourful word.

In lieu of demonstration, Bob — visibly disappointed — pocketed the contraption, leaned against the counter, and told me how he had spent the morning downtown. He had, it seemed, walked into several stereo and television stores with malice aforethought. He’d tuned all the connected stereo receivers to a popular Toronto station, set their volume low, then tuned his transmitter until nothing came out of the speakers peppered throughout the stores. He’d then turned the receivers’ volume to maximum.

The salespeople hadn’t noticed this, firstly because customers playing with displayed stereo equipment are commonplace, and secondly because Bob’s transmitter sent an inaudible signal — the proximity of his transmitter overpowered the radio station’s signal. What the salespeople (and varied passers-by) did notice, however, took place after Bob had left their establishments and had disconnected his battery: ear-splitting rock music seemingly coming from everywhere.

My reaction, as Bob’s tale ended, disappointed him further. I was expected, I think, to congratulate him on such a ‘neat’ creation, but all I could ask was “Why?” Why had someone with the brains to design electronic circuits wasted time and (albeit minimal) expense to create a practical joke — and break a few laws in its use?

In Emeryville, Ontario, someone has chosen to make a family’s life a living hell — turning their home into an electronic version of The Amityville Horror. ‘Sommy’ — as the perpetrator is known through voice-synthesized phone calls to the victims and police — controls the family’s hydro, their television cable, and their phone line. As evidenced by an officer’s slashed tires, Sommy has added willful destruction of property to the eventual litany of charges that will be laid.

Why is Sommy doing this? Why do computer programmers write and disseminate viruses that destroys other people’s data — and possibly their livelihoods?

I cannot answer these questions to my satisfaction, but it seems that a high-tech wish for power — achieving control through the tools of technology — indicates that intelligence and stupidity are not altogether unrelated.

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Copyright © 1997, 2006 by John Rudzinski. Note the date the column was originally published; any links contained therein are probably outdated.
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