Smooth Criminal

Since doing the hippy thing and “dropping out” of the rat race more than five years ago, I’ve been able to live a life of modest economy. I’m a naturally frugal person anyway, with few inclinations toward luxuries. Apart from wine, good coffee and too many guitars.

But I’ve always thought that if it came to it, if it was absolutely necessary, I could turn to crime. Not running around robbing banks, all hyped up on scooby snacks, but something smart, non-violent and not harmful to society. I could never be an investment banker, for example, although I could steal from an investment banker with a completely clear conscience.

hackerMaybe it could be something computer-based. Back when the Internet was new, I did poke around in places I shouldn’t have been, but I never found any flying saucers. I don’t know enough about real computer security to crack a system that’s been designed properly, but I do know enough about software and software engineers to know that a lot of things aren’t designed properly. Sony’s PSN is in the news now: it seems to have been completely shambolic.

You don’t even need to be any kind of expert to break into computers these days. There’s a kind of pyramid, with a few smart and gifted hackers at the top doing the real work, but it filters down to the many “script kiddies” who don’t understand what they’re doing or why, but can follow a detailed recipe and use pre-packaged intrusion software. Most of the world’s personal computers are Windows-based, and Windows is so hard to keep secure and up to date that most owners fail.

Actually, Microsoft always worked hard to expand the Windows market out of the home and onto Internet servers. In my humble (technical) opinion, you’d have to be mad to base your Internet infrastructure on Windows Server, but some people do. If the stuff in your address bar ends in “.asp”, then your browser is almost certainly getting the web page off a Windows system. “Hackers, come on in.”

I haven’t actually put much thought into how I’d make money from Internet crime. I wouldn’t be happy unless it was something individual and creative — phishing and 419 scams are so passé. Selling something worthless is an old idea as well, for example, the “get rich quick” book which contains the advice “sell a lot of ‘get rich quick’ books; but there is one area I’m attracted to: audiophile products.

CDI think I first became aware of the potential when I heard about the CD pen. This was a “special” felt-tip marker for coating the edge of your CDs, to stop the bits leaking out. I can’t remember the specific promises, but I’m sure they were the usual unverifiable claims about unprecedented clarity and warmth. And it only cost about ten times the price of a normal felt-tip, which is exactly what one enterprising audio journalist discovered under the stuck-on label.

The idea of reflecting laser light back into the CD to stop the digital bits escaping is obvious nonsense because of the way that digital systems work. Or in the way that they don’t work: bits are either on or off, and if your equipment can’t distinguish the difference then it gets no signal. That’s the case with another modern-day scam, the HDMI cable. I don’t know how much the most expensive ones are (I’ve heard figures over £300) but every assertion about them flies in the face of digital logic. If the signal gets through at all, then it must be perfect. Adding money can’t make it better.

Speaker cables are more debatable, because they carry an analog signal, but that perhaps makes them an even better subject for… um, creative marketing. You can’t make the “either working or not” argument about speaker cables, since an analog signal can pick up noise, or have its frequencies distorted, and still arrive at the other end. But in the real world, the beefy signal needed to drive a speaker is much more powerful than any potential interference. For both my home audio systems and musical amplification, I make speaker cables out of ordinary mains wire. It’s robust, flexible and can carry a high current.

That’s not good enough for the audiophiles though. They like the copper in their speaker cables to be pure and free from oxygen, because oxygen atoms obstruct the electrons from flowing, apparently. (Actually, that relates to my specialist area of physics in university, and I can assure you that the whole concept is deluded.) But even that’s not enough for some. As I understand it, there are speaker cables which are “directional”, that is, they must be connected between the amp and speakers a specific way round, because the electrons are happier flowing that way. Yayy for happy electrons.

The idea is mad, but the world seems to be full of fools who will believe it. I’ve heard of certain speaker cable sold at £2800 per metre. You know, after writing this, I’m feeling tempted to actually try it: go and buy some ordinary mains wire from B&Q and put it on eBay as speaker cable for the audio fanatic. Obviously, I’d need to remove the packaging, and maybe mark it up in some way to look impressive. Maybe I could do it with one of those special felt-tips?


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