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The Morphs of Bentham

by Andy Oram
10/30/2000

In honor of Halloween, and in memory of New England's classic horror writer, H. P. Lovecraft, Andy Oram offers this little skit, which promises to scare the wits out of any network administrator.


Cast of Characters

RALPH: CEO, Fashionvanity.com
YVONNE: marketing manager, Fashionvanity.com
A REALTOR: Bentham Realty's lead sales rep
K.C.: the caretaker of the old farmstead
MERYL: the managing system administrator
CLOCKRACER: a programmer
CHUCK: a system administrator
BRYANT: a police lieutenant
CHANG: a computer forensics expert


cats Scene 1 cats

[With screeching iron hinges, a solid wooden door opens into dim winter light.]

Ralph:
I don't think we'll be able to install central air.

Yvonne [excited, fast-clipped]:
We don't need it--we'll run everything on low-power Kobold chips.

Realtor:
I've been thinking how perfect this property would be for some high-tech company. We could use some new business in these parts.

K.C.:
You'd be doin' us a favor. Lot o' changes around town since I been takin' care of this dump. After the shoe factory shut down, some mighty odd people been movin' into Bentham--mighty odd ones, yes. [Raising his voice.] Some wouldn't want me to say it, but I won't be intimidated!

Yvonne:
[Throwing her arms out to greet the dusty interior.] I love the image we can project here: hardscrabble New England individuality: a sensible structure that withstands frost and storm!

Realtor:
The house has been standing steady since 1826.

Yvonne:
And before?

Realtor:
The land was empty a long time.

K.C.:
Tell 'em about the witch.

Realtor [with a casual laugh]:
That old bit of history! The person who first built on this land got arrested for witchcraft in 1657. Even at the time, most of the folk around here figured he was just a poor old loony. When they hanged him on an old elm tree, he was babbling about demons that could break into bits and spin around the world....

K.C.:
He said the demons who occupied this site would drown in a flood.

Ralph:
I hope the population has picked up some better sense since then.

Yvonne [impatiently]:
I want this place ready for a photo shoot in two months.

cats Scene 2 cats

[Same front room, now refurbished with potted plants and posters of the White Mountains. Speaking into a cell phone, Ralph bounces through the front door, which no longer creaks.]

Ralph:
...so we're positioned on the cusp between marketing and immediate customer self-realization. Through what we call transloyalty, brands no longer need to be built year by year but spring spontaneously into being as a result of interaction between the visitor and a constellation of unique visitor-matched pages we call a site phalanx. No, we have no failed links. [More loudly] I said "phalanx," that's P-H-A...sorry, we're damned with lousy reception here. The cellular antenna's over the hill on the church steeple. Let me call you back on one of our landline phones.

[Meryl saunters in.]

Meryl:
Needed to go through town. Bridge down by Carter Hollow's been closed down, got holes big enough to drop a man through. [Screwing up her face.] Bad day, bad day--last time that happened, townsfolk found possums feeding off a dead farmhand's body under the bridge.

Ralph:
The more local history I find out, the less I want to hear. But I noticed the lousy ride through Bentham this morning. There's no other way in or out of the office?

Meryl:
Not unless you want to traipse through two miles of swamp and then another eight to ten miles further to the next town. Dead crows been found in the woods, too.

Ralph:
Don't you get a creepy feeling driving through that old, run-down village?

Meryl:
I'll tell you what I don't like, it's having our servers depend on lines that run into town. Strange errors happen on those lines all the time. You'd think the ground around here wasn't happy, like something's buried there that isn't resigned to its fate. [Laughs, an eerie and unnerving cackle.] Lemme show you what we've done to solve the problem. [Lays out a map and places a red pin on it.] There's our office.

Ralph:
I know where we are, I just drove here.

Meryl:
[Placing six blue pins in a circle around the red one.] Those are the caching servers at local ISPs that handle all hits to our site in round-robin fashion.

Ralph:
How'd you choose those six?

Meryl:
Ouija board by candlelight at midnight.

Ralph:
Is that how you make all our administrative decisions?

Meryl:
Nope. I also set up caching on sites around the world that Yvonne picked out with me.

Ralph:
Well, that's better.

Meryl:
Lemme show you the traffic. [Pulls up a graph on the computer desktop.]

Ralph:
Excellent! But what's that bar devoted to "Morphs?"

Meryl:
Something Clockracer's been working on. Response time's groaning under the weight of that thing; I tell you, we oughta' stick with Javascript.

Ralph:
But he's sure attracting a lot of traffic.

Meryl:
About eighty percent of all visitor IP addresses.

[Yvonne walks in.]

Ralph:
Yvonne, do you know anything about a service we're offering called Morphs?

Yvonne:
No, but I've got good news--I've just closed with Sunrise Sensation on automatic referrals, and we're hosting movie star interviews for Asata Productions of India. [Throws her arm around Meryl's shoulders.] We'll need those Asian caching servers you've lined up, Meryl.

Ralph [To Meryl, who has been staring out the window at an empty field for a minute or so]:
What are you looking at?

Meryl [glancing back]:
Sorry, just thinking about the tree that used to be out there a long time ago. [Leaves for the server room.]

Ralph:
I'm going to check out this Morphs thing. Clockracer! [Yvonne disappears into another room while Clockracer enters, fingering a hat uncommunicatively.] Meryl tells me you're doing something called Morphs. [Clockracer looks down, a reaction for which Ralph's style is unsuited.] Seems to be a good thing, it's bringing lots of eyes.

Clockracer [in a mysterious and chilling mutter]:
Things don't always seem the way they is. People like to know that. They like to change things--see things that haven't been before.

Ralph:
I'm afraid--I'm afraid I don't quite understand. What are these visitors morphing?

Clockracer:
Things.

Ralph:
On our site?

Clockracer:
Yes. An oil company logo, a scene from the Wizard of Oz.... Turns into something you don't expect. Maybe the logo gets wrapped around a land mine, the movie scene turns up with everybody clothed in S&M garb. Genetic algorithm.

Ralph:
That sounds a bit irreverent, even sacrilegious--worst of all, it could get us in legal trouble with our sponsors.

Clockracer:
Nothing's persistent. All's just on the end-user's screen.

Ralph:
So you're drawing lots of people to our site to play around with cultural symbols?

Clockracer:
Started with my buddies down in Bentham. Seems to have spread.

Ralph:
I'll say so! We've had thousands upon thousands of hits on the Morphs site. I just wish visitors would click through to the content we want them to see. [Pausing, not knowing for once what to think or say.] Well, keep up the good work, and thanks for filling me in.

Clockracer:
Welcome. [Withdraws.]

Ralph:
Why can't this region provide technical staff who have some interpersonal skills, that's what I want to know.

cats Scene 3 cats

[Ralph enters, talking on his cell phone.]

Ralph:
We'll be adding more sponsors to the press release at the last minute...six p.m., east coast, at the latest, that way we'll hit the west coast at peak and East Asia in the morning...I said six p.m., S-I-X. Let me call you back on one of our landline phones.

Yvonne [rushing in as he hangs up]:
I signed Maxdistraxion--four banner ads for four weeks, and Spendthru's a partner, they're going to link to us on every story about trends; Earlyclip has a story going up in thirty minutes.

Ralph:
Yes! [They slap their palms in a high five.] Meryl and Chuck have downloaded all our content to the caching servers; all we have to do is sit here until nightfall and watch the world come to us.

[Insistent knock on the wooden door.]

Yvonne:
Please come in!

[Bryant pokes in his head, glances from wall to wall.]

Bryant:
This here Fashionvanity.com, Inc.?

Yvonne:
Yes....

Bryant [Offers a detective's badge as he and a colleague come over to the desk]:
Lieutenant Bryant here, and with me is our computer expert, Mr. Chang.

Yvonne:
What can we do for you, officers?

Bryant:
I'm going to impound your server and take a few months to look it over. We've been dealing with a powerful new virus that's already gone worldwide, and we have evidence tracing its origin back to this IP address.

Yvonne:
Is there any way we could put off the investigation a few hours, Mr. Bryant? We're waiting for a major news event involving our company.

Ralph:
What does this virus look like?

Bryant:
We don't know. It could look like anything.

Ralph:
I hope you appreciate frank speech, Mr. Bryant because I have to say that doesn't make sense to me as the CEO of an Internet company.

Bryant:
I should let my colleague Chang explain; he's the Internet expert on our force.

Chang:
You see, the virus initially had a footprint that we expect to match on your site, but it changes itself into unrecognizable forms as it spreads. We've never found anything quite so...devilish.

Yvonne:
How does it get around?

Chang:
There's no pattern to its mode of propagation; that's one of the ways the virus keeps changing itself. It tries various protocols on randomly chosen ports until something succeeds. The white hats tell us there's no way to configure a firewall to filter out all variations.

Yvonne:
Is it doing any damage?

Bryant:
None reported yet, but with something as wild as that bug, you never know! Maybe it's changing people's bank accounts and medical records as we speak. Maybe it's making planes disappear from air traffic control screens.

Chang:
But possibilities for positive behavior are also limitless. For all we can tell, the answer to great unsolved problems in mathematics or physics may pop out on somebody's screen. Already, routers that have been infected are showing improved quality of service because the virus selects for greater throughput.

Bryant:
We can't take chances, I'm afraid. We have to clamp down on this monster at the source.

Ralph:
How many systems are infected?

Bryant:
Several thousand hosts have been reported to us, but at the rate it's spread and changed its appearance, we can only estimate the possible impact.

Ralph:
What's the worst case?

Chang:
Fourteen million machines.

Yvonne:
Wow.

Chang:
The changes are facilitated by a distributed work model. After seeding new sites, the virus communicates with copies of itself on those sites. Sometimes hundreds of instances are dividing up the task of creating a new variant. It uses a sophisticated genetic algorithm.

Ralph:
[With a sudden shudder.] I think I have an idea how that virus got started. [Clockracer silently appears in the doorway.] Clockracer! Have you been listening in on this conversation? [Clockracer nods.] So you know we've got to get Morphs off our server, don't you? Even though it's too late to stop the spread of this virus, we can at least stop distributing the original.

[Clockracer keeps his head down, saying nothing.]

Bryant:
We know you didn't do it on purpose, Clockracer--it kind of got out of control.

Chang:
You had a brilliant idea that's...just a little too brilliant for its time.

Clockracer [sullenly]:
It goes, I go.

Ralph:
[Not trying to conceal his relief.] It's a deal, Clockracer. Just clear out your desk and our administrators will take care of the systems.

Clockracer:
Got nothing but a Ouija board anyway. [Leaves by the main door. As he walks down the driveway in the fading twilight, hundreds of frogs in a nearby pond erupt in a frantic and uncanny piping noise.]

Ralph:
Does that satisfy you, Mr. Bryant?

Bryant:
[Looks at Chang, who nods.] I guess so. Thanks, folks. We'll be back tomorrow to do some checking around for further trouble. Good luck on your big debut. [Bryant and Chang leave.]

Ralph:
Not bad, eh? We got rid of the heat, eliminated a source of traffic that wasn't providing us any income, and said good-bye to that creepy Clockracer just after he finished doing all the work we need.

Yvonne:
It's six o'clock! Let's see what the Web is saying about us. [Ralph comes over to peruse her screen.] Pretty as all get-out, huh? "Fashionvanity to mediate all leisure and entertainment trends....partners with Maxdistraxion, Spendthru..." We're out in view of the whole world; people should be clicking through just about now.

Ralph:
Wow! Gotta see how the guys in the server room are doing.

[A bloodcurdling scream emerges from the server room, where the administrators Meryl and Chuck are monitoring the systems.]

Ralph:
What the hell is going on there?

Meryl:
We're overloaded! We're screamin'!

Ralph:
With customers? From the press releases and news stories?

Chuck:
No, it's downloads of Morphs software.

Ralph:
I told you to wipe it off the site!

Meryl:
Did that, but the caching servers still have it. After Clockracer left, he posted to the user newsgroup that we were taking down the service. Now his weird associates everywhere in the world are trying to get in, want to download the software before it disappears.

Yvonne:
No! Don't let them. Filter them out!

Meryl:
Filter who out? We can't stop them unless we cut off all access.

Yvonne:
Can't you remove it from the caching servers?

Chuck:
Take 'em twelve to eighteen hours at each ISP....

Ralph:
No! No! [Buries head in hands.]

Yvonne:
[Looking out the window] What's that strange light coming up the hill?

K.C.:
[Rushing in the door.] You folks do anythin' to get a mob at Bentham worked up? They're comin' this way, and cuttin' off access by the only road out.

Meryl:
It's that icky crowd Clockracer used to hang out with--they must be coming for the Morphs software.

Yvonne:
Let's get the hell out of here!

Ralph:
We'll have to try our chances at the bridge.

[All rush out the door into the darkness as the lights go out.]

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