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The Northern Spy
February 2007

iNellie iHacker

Rick Sutcliffe

Slightly louder than the sound of one hand clapping

but not quite the butterfly on the wing that generates the tornado, a slight trill of sound on the air snapped my attention from cleaning up my Ajax project a fragmentary moment before the chair behind me creaked tellingly.

"Hi, Nellie. What's up?" No one else would breeze into my office unannounced.

"Mind if I have a couple of squares of that white chocolate your wife sent in your lunch? Without awaiting an answer, she reached over, helped herself, and chowed down. "Ah, good stuff, that."

As she leaned back, the whisper of sound perambulated into proper mental register, and I glanced her way, taking in the expected buds, one dangling on her collar so as to free a single ear catch my bon mots.

"Playing your iPod kinda loud aren't you?" I commented. I shouldn't be able to hear it.

"Might be for an old geezer like you. Seems good to me." She grinned and pulled a small box from her pocket.

"Holy moley, Nellie. That's no iPod, it's an iPhone."

"A brilliant observation," she commented laconically, adding, "No one says 'holy moley' any more, Professor, 'ceptin' the 1940s characters in your books." She unplugged her remaining bud and handed it over for inspection.

"Where'd you got one of these, kiddo? They're not supposed to be out in the wild for another six months yet."

She returned a feral grin. "An iHacker has her iSources."

"And enough iClout to get her iWay, iGather."

"Not half funny enough to iLaugh," she retorted.

I turned her prize and watched the screen flop, then iTriggered a few iButtons."

"Well, it's pretty enough," I offered, "but does it match the Treo 700 you were carrying last week?"

"Are you kidding? This puppy's way cooler."


There was a long pause, and she flushed slightly before admitting, "Not quite there yet."

"Not enough software?"

"What it has is stone cool, but me and my buds brainstormed this thing last night and came up with a dozen new ideas before two in the morning, not counting all the stuff that just plain ain't there yet."

Nellie'd told me about her friends. One married couple were former industry hotshots now living green under culverts in Munich and working on open source projects using public library terminals. Another was a renegade hacker who specialized in mailbombing spammers using their own zombie networks who operated from a nondescript backwoods shanty a couple of kilometres outside Spuzzum. A third was a innocuous department store furniture saleswoman by day whose night hobby was breaking into corporate systems and leaving behind messages recommending security services that retained her sub tabula as a consultant for a cut of the action. Throw in the ten-year-old girl in Turkistan and her Bulgarian partner-cum-Baptist pastor that design high security money machines for the former second story man turned bank president who.... Well, you get the idea.

"You don't look too happy about it," I responded to her frown. Nellie was never one to hide her feelings.

"Hmmmph," she snorted, steeling herself to critique her new toy. "You know the real bottom line on these gizmos?"

"You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it."

"She winced at my quoting Austin's 'Mr. Bennet'.

"It's the coolest consumer toy ever, and iSteve's projection of a one percent market share is low by three. Every other cell phone company exec oughta be shaking in her iBoots. Not only that, Apple Inc. will sell more computers than Apple Computer ever did. Seventy-eight percent increase in profits up to a billion smakerinos. AppleTV. Leopard coming to desktops in a month or two. Beatles music deal pending. Widescreen iPod you didn't hear about from me. Watch the Super Bowl commercial. Near immune from viruses. Be in third place afore long."

"But?" I encouraged in the teeth of her shotgun pellet words.

"I can live for a while with the puny memory levels, no removable storage, and sans a lot of the usual smartphone goodies, but he don't give us an SDK and it's a programmer's iDoorstop," she averred.

"That bad?"

"Ah," she tossed her head and held out her hand for the toy. "Me and my friends'll fix it. If Apple won't publish a software developer's kit so's we can program this mother, we'll bring one out ourselves. They ain't gonna iSteve us with a closed box no one can program."

I grinned. This from someone who boasted to me back in the 80s she could break into any computer in the world. I recalled believing her then and suddenly felt sorry for anyone trying to stop such elemental forces of nature.

"How long will it take you?" I mildly enquired.

"I dunno. Maybe a few months. Longer to get some useful software running on the platform."

"A good book reader?"

"Among other things." She was suddenly as coy as an iNdustry executive being quizzed over iSecrets. "We have a list."

I was about to make a point when she waved me to silence, then shot me another grin. "You're going to warn me I can't fight the phone company any more than I can City Hall. She looked at my screen to see what I was typing. "You just write that the phone company is facing a Cingularity if they mess with us."

I spotted a few scratches on the case. "You've had it apart."

She shot me a withering look.

"Of course I pried it open. Wha'd you expect? Miss nice Nellie? I got consulting contracts with a battery company, remember? They specialize in replacements for non-replaceable cells."

I snorted and changed the subject. Nellie had contracts with everybody, spies everywhere. "Impressions?"

"Nicely engineered. Runs Leopard. I've barely got a dozen things on my list of suggested improvements."

"Think the Cisco lawsuit over the name will get anywhere?"

"Nah. Them Cisco kids are riding a nag. Better to send lawyer Pancho out for a few chips and chill over a Jolt and pizza. Apple could change the corporate name to iApple, and sell iNear, iAnything iT iWanted. Any judge worth her wig will know iSteve pretty much owns the iNameSpace. Cisco is iToast."

"What of pundits' predictions the iPhone foreshadows the next generation of iPods?"

"Undoubtedly. Tear out the phone guts and pop in a disk drive, and you're away to a hundred gig concert."

"She tossed off the newest double entendre without blinking, scarcely expecting it to move me. After all, no pun intended.

"Is it potentially the PIEA?"

"The 'Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliance' you write about in your science fiction? Not yet, but once ordinary phreaks like me can write programs for this baby, it'll get most of the way there."

"Except for the terabyte memory it needs."

"Give it a couple of years." At that pronouncement, her eyes glazed over and she adopted a light silly grin for a few moments, no doubt inwardly contemplating the esoteric shape of some piece of code she'd recently written, a particularly juicy but now exterminated bug, or a perhaps a delicious upcoming hack. Nellie is not like ordinary people. But who is?

"What's the book," she enquired when she snapped from her trance.

It was lying open but upside-down on my desk, so she knew I'd been programming--a nasty habit I'd transmitted to her lo those many years ago.

"JavaScript and Ajax, by Tom Negrino and Dori Smith, sixth edition," she read from the cover, not awaiting my reply. "Hey, the last five editions of their Javascript book never said anything about Ajax." She pronounced the word without the studly cap in the middle.

"They gotta keep up with the times I suppose."

She chucked. "Told you the critics were writing off ECMAScript too soon, that the ol' girl still had some life in her."

I nodded at her use of the standards-based name. As I recalled things though, it was I who had tried to persuade her that Java's pseudo-relative was still worth using, she who'd insisted it was too limited, a dead turkey. But no matter. Google and Yahoo had powerful arguments of their own by way of web products that worked more like desktop applications than browser-centric pages. Nothing succeeds like success, so JavaScript was back big time.

By this time she was leafing through the book. "Some nice material f in here for the beginner," she observed.

"Yeah, I picked up a few pointers on dynamically including files in pages and scored a few reminders on form handling techniques. Not bad stuff, and their examples are clean, simple, and adaptable. Fact, I used an idea of theirs to add a push-down style option to my dynamic menus script with only another five code lines."

"You always find errors," she invited.

"Not many likely in a sixth edition," I rejoindered, "though the authors do claim an attempted httpRequest to fetch a file from a machine other than the one the script resides on won't work."

"It doesn't?" She seemed genuinely surprised.

I briefly savoured knowing one thing she didn't, however obscure. "Mozilla browsers like FireFox and Camino recognize this as a security issue and generate the exception, but Safari doesn't."

She snapped her fingers. "And you like that because you can test your Ajax pages locally without hitting the server on which you plan to deploy. I suppose you just pop a copy of the files you plan to read into your ~user/sites directory, start up file serving, and browse to that copy using your own IP number. Nice."

Her chain of reasoning was obviously correct, so why comment, even to wit that people rarely snap fingers these days. I also let pass the issue of whether the issue was properly the browser's to handle or should be done server-side, and commented instead on the magazine she had under her arm.

"New Mac Publication you got there?" It looked sleek and expensive, not a rag, but something from the industry's upper echelon, a joint where real money hangs out.

She dropped it on the table. The banner read "Mac|Life premiere issue", and I congratulated myself momentarily on my persispacity.

"Yes and no", she equivocated. "Used to call themselves MacAddict, and they don't have the guts to fight Apple by using either MaciLife or AppleLife, so they're being coy with the vertical bar. Same gang as before, though."

High praise from Nellie indeed. She had every issue of MacAddict. Come to think of it, so did I.

"Got any last words for our readers, Nellie? Want to tell them what you see in their future?"

She got her faraway look once again, then in a dreamy tone, "I see... I see...a great expanse, a veritable Vista. But it's fading, fading, until...there's nothing but one large red fruit."

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

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Last Updated: 2007 01 19