Making Houdini proud

Just as the magician escaped from what appeared to be an inescapable situation, some worry that WLAN signals will go places they shouldn't.

Feb 1st, 2003

Just a few months ago, I was an unwitting participant in a magic show, and I didn't even know what was happening until it was over. I sat in a pediatrician's exam room, after describing the symptoms of what turned out to be my son's conjunctivitis and a double ear infection, watching the doctor busily type information into her laptop computer.

She told me the diagnosis and said she was prescribing two medications, which I could pick up downstairs at the clinic pharmacy. I asked if she had a written prescription for me, and as the last few words of that question tumbled off my lips, I realized what had been going on. "The pharmacy already has it," the doctor replied, gently waving the laptop in her right hand.

Then I acted like a kid at a magic show, eyes as wide as saucers and mouth agape. "You have a wireless network?!" I asked, the way I would expect my 11-year-old nephew to react if I told him I got Nintendo's GameCube. It quickly became apparent that while I could have asked several questions about 802.11 (a or b?), Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, the doctor was way outside her comfort zone, in which questions center around mucous membranes, bowel movements, and frequent vomiting.

As a journalist in the network cabling industry, I should view these technologies with appropriate respect, but not awe. In this case, I just couldn't help myself, and the only two words I could think of as a reaction—words I stole from my 11-year-old nephew—were, "That's cool."

I think that wireless LAN (WLAN) transmission is like a magic show in some ways, and we can draw parallels between the things we see from illusionists and those that we experience when using wireless technologies. For example, when the magician puts his assistant in a box and saws her in half, it reminds me of the throughput of a WLAN link with multiple users. Because WLAN throughput rates are shared, my bits-per-second transmission rate gets cut every time a new user appears in my coverage area.

Then there's the "hidden ball" trick. I saw this one performed badly once, so I know how the illusionist does it. He holds a ping-pong ball in one hand, then waves his other hand over it and it disappears. The trick is that there's a string attached to the ball. So, when the audience thinks the ball's gone because all they see is the magician's bare palm, the ball is actually dangling on the string on the backside of the magician's hand. Like the disappearing-ball trick, a WLAN wouldn't work without strings (in the form of cables) attached. Wireless isn't truly "wireless."

Finally, there's the trick where the magician gets wrapped up in what looks like a ton of chains and locks. Often, the magician submerges into a sealed container of water, then the curtain comes across and we can't see what happens from there. After a couple minutes, the local fire department and a few paramedics tear through the curtain to try to resuscitate the performer. There's nobody there when they look, but within a few seconds, the magician emerges from some remote part of the auditorium—to the delight of the crowd.

The tie-in to WLANs is, of course, security. Just as the magician escaped from what appeared to be an inescapable situation, some worry that WLAN signals will go places they shouldn't. Another camp strongly maintains that WLANs are insecure only when their users do not properly deploy the encryption capability.

In an effort to continue serving this industry, and to meet your never-decreasing information needs, we will cover WLANs several times in the coming months. You can expect that some of the information will sound optimistic, while some will not. That merely reflects the market's reality. After years of technological advancement and growing user acceptance, wireless is still looked at skeptically by many. As always, we encourage and welcome your experiences and viewpoints on this technology and its applications.

Patrick McLaughlin
Chief Editor
patrick@pennwell.com

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