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The Northern Spy
September 2003

The Autumn of Our Discontent

Rick Sutcliffe

Nellie Hacker dropped in the other day, looking for all the world a sleek panther that's snacked on a buzzard. She plunked herself in a visitor's chair and hoisted her feet to the top of my meeting table. When she tossed her best Cheshire across the room it sparkled in the air like fresh flowers in a Hawaiian lei, or a quad erat demonstrandum issued after a particularly satisfying Number Theory proof. (No, Nellie, QED does not mean "quite enough done" or quit, else die".)

Oh, and that reminds me to take issue with Thoughts on some simple graphics by Mike Pfaiffer in last month's issue of Call-A.P.P.L.E. (August 2003) No, Calculus and Linear Algebra are not difficult. Moreover, they are necessary stepping stones for programming work. After all, every sufficiently advanced problem is indistinguishable from applied mathematics. But where were we? Oh, yes, Nellie.

"I'd guess you're happy enough to be footloose and fancy free when you're supposed to be working," I observed dryly. "But what's the occasion, Nellie? Your boss in a celebratory mood and handing out time off in lieu of cigars?"

"Can't work when everybody else is using my desk," she advised, seeming for all the world to be underscoring the obvious. "Boss gave me the day off, told me to work at home out of my own digs."

"All right, I'll play Frank Schuster to your Johnny Wayne. What happened?"

"You remember how I whined and complained in your February 2003 column about all the computer problems at work?"

"Yeah, what of it?"

"Boss read your column and took pity. Approved my requisition for a Mac. Got the little honey in this week. One of the first 2GHz twin G5s off the old assembly line."

"So the tech support people are setting it up whilst you harass me about having an old G4?"

"Oh, no I set it up myself the same day. Stayed after work and had her on the net, all my apps and files loaded and humming like a Ruby Throat in a half hour. Tech were a tad upset 'bout me doing them out of their jobs, but at least my desktop ain't part of their makework project any more."

"So, you're off work because..."

"I'm getting to that," she retorted, her grin widening to threaten the stability of my bookshelves.

When she just continued to savour her moment without continuing, I tried again. "Your new Mac is still working, isn't it?"

"Oh sure enough. Fact, it's the only machine in the whole company that's functional."

"But you've got hundreds. What happened?"

"Blaster worm got in, toasted the whole lot."

"Didn't they patch for that? I thought that exploit was plugged weeks ago."

"Tech support was too busy trying to make an upgrade work on the executive machines. Thought the firewall would protect the company. Then the CIO her own self brought her portable from home and plugged it in to the net. Kerbang!" She drove her left fist into her right hand for emphasis. Seems her kids had been using it at school."

"But it didn't affect the one Mac."

"Course not. Nor a couple of Linux servers, one in accounting, the other doing our eMail. But when the scoop got around, pretty soon there was a lineup of people wanting to use my machine to check their messages."

"So they let you go home."

"No, 'cause then five million sobig infested eMails arrived at the company server in an hour. So it croaked, too. Nah," she added, sardonically, "while they're waiting for tech support to clean up the mess, the accounting people took over my desk to prepare the company's end of quarter report. Has to be filed with the stock exchange by tomorrow. Company won't be back to normal for a couple of weeks minimum."

She chuckled and seemed to wind down momentarily, then added yet another morsel.

"After that, tech support posted a memo with quotes from bigger companies than ours saying things were even worse other places. They took it down after I asked why there were no quotes from companies using MacOS, Unix, or Linux."

I punctured Nellie's satisfaction with another question. "How are they going to get the report to the stock exchange if the mail's down?"

"I dunno. Courier pigeon?"

"I thought your tech support people said they wouldn't buy Macs because of incompatibilities with your company's applications. How is accounting managing their show?"

"No one ever asked me before. The data's on their server and can be queried by anything that'll talk SQL with the right accent. I set them up with a couple apps to choose from and left them counting beans to their hearts' content."

"Giving you the day off," I concluded.

"Know the best part?" Her grin reached its apex, and I thought I saw it bounce off the walls.

"That is?"

"CEO came by while they were starting work and said, 'going to have to talk to tech support about buying more of these boxes'."

"Some things are best eaten cold, aren't they," I suggested.

"Well, gotta go. I got work to do at home, but I think I'll pick up a pizza on the way."

Nellie left, but her expansive grin hung about the office a while afterward, only reluctantly fading from the ambiance as the afternoon wore on. She'd given me the meat for the rest of this column, though.

As these words are written, Apple's new product announcements fall as gently as the leaves from my backyard apple trees, seasonally shedding their verdant coats in the wake of equinox. The Northern Hemisphere's fall has begun auspiciously for Steve Jobs and the boys, who are basking in the golden delicious tan induced by a thousand favourable spotlights shone their way, some from unexpected from a thousand sources. G5s are shipping, new G4 PowerBooks are on the way, Panther nears its rumoured October 24 launch date, iChatAV is a roaring success, the music store is going to beat the band, and engineering is almost ready to report out on the new line of xServe machines.

Cupertino's warrens hoard a plethora of secret projects squirreled away against the chance winter of marketplace discontent. But today's winds blow fair, warm, and storm-free. They haven't always had the credit for it, but Apple has been single-handedly responsible for almost every significant innovation in desktop computing for more than two decades, and the creative sap still flows, promising more harvests to come.

Sweetest of all is the near universal acclaim from the mighty but fickle technical press. It has been only a handful of years since the anti-Apple feeding frenzy among fourth estate sharks bid fair to drown the company in savage inky seas. The steak of facts didn't suffice and the sizzle of marketing scarcely gave the scribes a whiff of reality. The worm of insecurity, the fear they had backed the wrong horse for their desktops ate away their consciences, and the corrosion poured forth from their pens.

But the old adage "bad money drives out good" sometimes fails in the information age, provided enough people are touched by the good. Occasionally something does seep through the walls of deliberate obfuscation and makes itself known. So it is with theology, science, medicine, and education, among other disciplines. Self-serving eisegesis, experiments designed for the desired funding outcome, treating pharmaceutical companies' complains rather than patients', and indoctrinating students not to ask messy questions are all tried and proven techniques for gaining quiescent compliance with the current party line. But occasionally the daemons take a vacation, the lights go on, the window gets opened, a breath of fresh air blows, and obfuscation is for a time covered up. So it has been recently in the computing industry.

Awakening comes at wrenching cost, of course. People don't want to admit they've made bad decisions, gotten suckered into mediocrity, or spent large sums of money unwisely. When the emperor himself has made, sold, and several times upgraded your new clothes, you can be recalcitrant about pointing the finger.

Yet the very angst once unleashed against Apple should have underscored how unstable were the managers of public opinion, and suggested to us all that a sufficient turn of public events might shatter the precarious hold these carrion birds had on their perches.

Now it has happened. The mass-mailed sobig worm and the port 135 exploiting blaster worm have between them caused sufficient havoc around the world already as to open the eyes of the most jaded of pro-Wintel advocates. (It ain't over folks; there's more coming.) When your eMail server has been hosed, your mailbox filled to overflowing, your computer brought to its knees, and your files destroyed not once, not twice, but repeatedly over a period of months, sometimes by very preventable pestilential scourges, even the blindest begin to get an inkling something is wrong.

Yes, in some instances, system administrators have to bear part of the blame for not applying known patches. But it should be clear even to the most loyal of their fans that this is fundamentally a Microsoft problem.

Security experts have no idea how many worms, viruses, and Trojan horses there are in the Windows domain. Estimates run as high as 70 000, though surely only a few thousand of these are a threat at any given time. Likewise, only a few of the hundreds of new ones estimated to appear daily are particularly dangerous.

The Spy has not seen comparable figures for the Linux world, but does receive Red Hat security advisories, and most of these in the last ten months have been mild admonitions concerning bundled applications that he keeps turned off in favour of better. One kernal upgrade was required during that time. Meanwhile, in the Apple orchard the number of OS 9 worms, viruses, and trojan horses stands at fifty, with no new ones having appeared for some time. What of the OS X domain a couple of years in? There are none. Yes, you read that correctly. Someone may prove the Spy wrong before this is published, but to date there have been no Mac OS exploits taken, though a few holes were hastily plugged.

Now, one would certainly expect the majority system to get the largest number of attacks. On the other hand, the fame awaiting the first one to exploit OS X to crack a Mac server or spread a virus in like manner to what;' done daily to Windows machines should attract the best (sic?) and brightest to that platform. But there is only silence, broken by the clatter of keyboards as the Mac (and Linux) users continue their work unperturbed and unworried.

There is a way to modularize code so as to prevent problems in one area from running amok all over the system. By its very nature, Unix (including Linux) is for the most part organized this way. The Mac APIs have always been produced in component fashion, with thin, well-defined interfaces for the rest of the system. That's how we teach code development in software engineering, folks. When code in one compartment hits an iceberg, the damage is confined.

Here's a more respected spokesperson than the Spy commenting: "The fundamental issue was that the method by which Microsoft develops code is not up to the job for building enterprise level computers." --Bill Malik, VP at Gartner Group quoted in Silicon.com (2003 09 20)

Well said. One cannot help but wonder how long it would take to rewrite more than a hundred million lines of more or less monolithic code so that it does live in watertight components. One also calls to mind that the Titanic also had compartments whose walls failed to reach to the top.

In the March issue of the Northern Spy we mused "Any sufficiently complex technology is unmanageable. It can neither be understood, effectively modified, nor maintained. It is doomed to collapse. Certain hundred-million line plus programs whose names I will not mention have probably reached this exalted status. Has the Internet? Has eMail? Is there a fix?"

There are no easy answers to such questions. Certainly eMail managers are going to have to turn nasty in their efforts to keep out attacks, not failing messages back to the ostensible sender (perpetuating spam that didn't come from there in the first place) or passing them to the mailbox of the domain owner (who is often not the addressee anyway) but blackholing them into oblivion, even if this means killing some good messages by mistake. When bad programming produces security holes that malicious hackers use to destroy the electronic infrastructure, aggressive measures are needed for self defense.

Is the stage set for a massive switch to OS X and Linux? Not if the inertia of installed base or Windows support technicians whose livelihoods would be at stake have anything to say about the matter. But market attitudes have changed, no more so than in the last few weeks. The press (especially in core IT rags) has done an about face and is now praising Apple for its leadership, product quality, security, and utility--qualities they could have noticed a decade ago but ignored until now. None less than the CTO of icon publication InfoWorld has scrapped all his Wintel machines and switched to a Mac. Others are noting price of ownership, longevity, productivity, and support cost all favour the Mac, sometimes heavily. The decision makers are starting to consider the Mac as a viable alternative, and no one is getting fired for buying them, even in the largest enterprises.

One of those measures involves adopting operating systems and hardware assemblies hat are inherently more reliable and secure than the majority one has proven itself to be. Money will drive these decisions; and it has far more power than the emotional attachment too many people have shown to lining a monopoly's bank accounts.

It's too bad that one company's fortune is often made at the expense of others' misfortune, but Steve Jobs has been handed a Olympic torch forged from the fires now burning over the Internet. If he carries it well between now and the time the real one gets lit at Vancouver in 2010, he may well have deservedly traded places with Bill Gates on the Forbes list.

More on this next month, or perhaps the month after, when we collect actual platform comparisons from around the net. Meanwhile, the news of the month is that our sister company, Arjay Web Services (http://www.ArjayWeb.com), not content to back only one winner, has taken on a sponsorship of Team H.E.L.P. http://www.teamhelp.ca) winners of the 2003 British Columbia and Yukon Branch Circuit and Provincial Lifeguarding championships (pool and overall). Next stop, the nationals in Montreal next spring. Go team!

--The Northern Spy

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Last Updated: 2006 11 08