Stob Your attention please. I bring a message to you, Britain's IT community, from High Command.
Yes, that does mean all of you. I realise many are in the midst of an ongoing attempt to reconnect to the office. Please stop that. Tech support will be dialling back to you shortly. Meanwhile, please self-triage into 'Windows 10 and L2TP/IPSec DNS problems', 'Setting the Zoom background to hide the naff decor in my kitchen' and 'What the hell is up with Skype now?' groups.
And to the folks at the back, lurking in deep cover: please put down your shotgun for a moment. I guarantee that your pallet-load of luxury quilted Surprised Marsupial toilet tissue (every single sheet delicately and luxuriously watermarked with a surprised koala staring up at you, reassuringly signifying mankind's superiority over the ecosphere) can look after itself for five minutes.
(NB: under emergency regulations, all supposedly comic creatives are obliged to make a reference to this meme in every topical piece. No exceptions. Not even for the sainted Matt.)
I should emphasise this is not about "Topic A", as the late Alistair Cooke would have put it. There will be no hand-washing hygiene hums, no circuit diagrams describing how to make a buzzer go off every time you unconsciously paw your visage, and no advice as to the ideal distance to hold your telephone from the contactless money-extraction widget at the supermarket when employing pay-by-waft (but please don't use the verb "tap" in this context. That's so January).
No, this concerns the technology "5G". And, as Rory Cellan-Jones, the Beeb's beloved David Attenborough of IT, patiently explains, this is a different kettle of fish, notwithstanding the fiercely held opposing views from the Bacofoil millinery faction.
Let me set out the difficulty. A few weeks ago - but feeling like about 10 years - the government of Donald d'Orange instructed HMG to ban the use of Huawei's equipment when building the infrastructure for the UK's 5G system.
We admit we are not quite sure what happened next.
Maybe it was the cunning lobbying of the mobile operators. Perhaps someone gave way to the understandable impulse to offer Prez T the lone finger of defiance and hang the consequences. Possibly one of the weirdos swayed the mood of the meeting by noting that his last-but-one No. 3 phone had been a Huawei, and that it had been really good until he dropped it.
In any event, the decision that emerged from the UK's corridors of power was to cock a 5G snook, and go ahead and put in the Huawei kit. That's where we are.
Now, you might think that there are now much more important matters in hand, given that in the medium term it is not clear that we will still enjoy the luxury of mains electricity, never mind convenient Wi-Fi for fancy fridges.
HMG concedes that there is some validity to this point of view. However, in this matter it has chosen to adopt the spirit of one of our great British institutions, The Archers, which will continue for another month to focus on the consequences of a small accident in Grey Gables' kitchen and ignore the ongoing global crisis.
And then there's this. We had previously supposed that the principal function of 5G would be to enable smart speakers and doorbells to spy on their owners.
However, it turns out - and I am afraid we missed this detail in our initial assessment, possibly because the UK government's top Sino-specialist retired a few years ago – it turns out that this technology can spy on governments as well as just people. And it seems that the intentions of China are not always entirely honourable.
Who would have thought it? Our spies are spooked.
What we need you to do
The good news is that our backroom boffins have come up with a workaround that means we can have both security in the UK and a website in every radiator.
Like most really great ideas, this one has the merit of simplicity. But it does require the programmers of the UK to make certain simple modifications to existing applications.
To avoid transmitting our most sensitive material straight to the spies of Bejing, we simply want you to update your socket-writing code to use a special encryption algorithm. Instead of sending raw binary data across the internet, please encode it as an audio stream containing the spoken voice equivalent.
In a Geordie accent.
Now, I can guess what you are saying. You are saying: what if, perhaps because of line noise, the speech decoding system accidentally loses one spoken nybble? Can the scheme support UTF-8 style error detection and self-alignment to the nearest byte boundary?
The answer is, of course, Yes! To achieve this, we are going to mandate the well-established Magnuson naming system for articulating hex codes. This big-endian scheme automatically groups nybble pairs correctly.
Nothing clarifies as well as a worked example. So, the traditional hex debugging constant
will be smuggled across a 5G boundary using the vocalisation
dotty-ee annty-dee betty-ee ernesty-eff, pet
Notice the use of an appropriate string termination marker. Simply imagine that phrase read out as if by Jimmy Nail, and I think we can be pretty confident that our message is quite secure from foreign governments' prying.
But there's more
The Geordie-Magnuson scheme is all very well for voice-encoding binary data. But what is to be done about plain text? For that, we must deploy a suitable character-by-character system.
It is at this point that we discovered that patriotism and data processing are felicitously aligned.
For it is well-known (is it not?) that the British sense of humour is the best in the world, and also that other nations don't really "get" it. We can exploit these facts to build an encryption system of formidable strength.
The conventional method of transmitting characters by voice is to use the NATO phonetic alphabet: Sierra Tango Oscar Foxtrot, that sort of thing. The words in this alphabet have been carefully chosen to be memorable, distinct, recognisable even when pronounced in different accents, of uniform (sic) length, easily understood without a scientific background and humourless.
The Stob Unhelpful Alphabet, on the other hand, is none of these things. It is ambiguous, confusing, unintuitive, 1337ist and, above all, funny. OK, "mildly amusing" then.
Here is the kut-out-and-keep table that you will need, with mouseover explanations of the individual items. Because there is no better way to prop up a weak joke than by laboriously explaining it, is there?
- is for Aye and Ah
- is four in Words with Friends
- is for Cue
- is for Ring
- is for Eff
is for Fullstop
- is for Gnome
- is for Heir
- is for One
- is for jojoba
- is for Knight
- is for Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch
- is for M Dash
- is for N Dash
- is not zero
- is for Psoriasis
- is for Koran
- is for Rite
- is for semicolon
- is inaudible in asthma
- is for Unununium, the temporary name for Roentgenium or Uranium
- is for Five
- is for Write
- is for By
- is for You
- is for Atomic Number
One final point. For obvious reasons, I need to make a small charge of £1 per letter each time this alphabet is used. Straight to my PayPal account, please, which for reasons of tax efficiency is tied to my Isle of Man email address.
A few words of comfort
Finally, as acknowledgement of these unsettling times, I have decided to quote a few simple, inspiring words spoken at a moment of crisis by one of the great leaders in the class of fiction that we techies admire.
Those of you who know me best will be unsurprised that I have chosen Doctor Who as my source, and "Genesis of the Daleks" - a story chock-a-block with top-notch quotes and performances - as my text.
On reflection, I have decided not to use the "Davros, if you had created a virus..." speech.
Instead, here is something much more upbeat. Surely no true-blooded IT professional can fail to take comfort from the defiance of an embattled survivor, whom the Doctor has cruelly locked down in an isolated bunker. Here is the closing speech of the Supreme Spokesdalek.
"We are entombed, but we live on. This is only the beginning. We will prepare, we will grow stronger. When the time is right, we will emerge and take our rightful place as the supreme power of THE UNIVERSE!"
Good luck, everybody. ®
Verity Stob is the pseudonym of a software developer based in London. Since 1988, she has written her "Verity Stob" column for .EXE magazine, Dr Dobb's Journal and, since 2002, The Register.
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