The Hittman Chronicle

The Cue Cat is a cheaply made bar code reader that Digital Convergence is giving away on a massive scale. They've sent them to everyone who subscribes to Wired and Forbes, and they're available for free at any Radio Shack. If you haven't received one yet, you will, sooner or later. You may want to make room for it on your pile of shrink-wrapped AOL CDs.

At first glance it seems like a good idea. DC's hype that it's "the biggest computer innovation since the mouse" is nonsense, but it looks like it could be a handy toy. Scan any bar coded item and you're instantly whisked off to the company's web site, sometimes to a page for that exact product. Wired magazine is printing special bar codes in some advertisements, providing a quick way to get information.

But on second glance, it seems rather silly. It's not a great effort to type in, or to find something with a search engine. Contrast that with the cat's monstrous installation procedure, which seems designed to encourage people to fling it against the wall in disgust. First you unplug your keyboard and plug in the cat. Then you plug the keyboard back into a pigtail on the cat. Then you insert the CD. The installation starts, chugs for a while, then freezes, demanding your custom registration number. A web site pops up, telling you you're about to be blessed with this magic number, and all you have to do is fill out a simple form that asks for your name, gender, age, zip code, e-mail address (where they'll send the number) and the date of your last polio vaccination. You give them bogus info and a disposable Hotmail e-mail address if you have half a brain, or your real info if you're dumber than a sack of hammers, then wait for the magic number to arrive. When it does, you copy the number, paste it into your stalled install, wait for the install to finish, reboot your computer, and then, finally, the cat's nose lights up and you can scan stuff.

Each cat has a unique serial number which is sent with every scan. DC claims they'll never misuse this information, and some people actually believe them, which brings us back to the "Sack of Hammers" joke. The cat arrives with a few bar codes to play with, and then you're encouraged to scan everything in your house. When you do, you'll be telling Digital Convergence what kind of food you eat, what kind of magazines and books you read and what kind of products you use. They'll be delighted to know you're using "Just For Men" (Dark Brown), Preparation H, Metabolife diet pills and Rogaine, while listening to Barenaked Ladies and reading the latest Grisham novel (which, surprisingly, seems just like the last Grisham novel). While you might not be embarrassed about the Preparation H and the Rogaine, do you really want to admit to reading Grisham?

Even if they don't misuse the information maliciously, they've already misused it through careless stupidity. The sign-up data was stored on their server in an unencrypted, plain text file, readily available to anyone who could guess the URL. Someone did, and the information on 150,000 accounts, including the fresh, unmunged e-mail addresses spammers drool over, became public information. DC apologized, and set a whopping ten dollar gift certificate to people who will now have an extra few hundred e-mails to delete every week.

DC was kind enough to assemble their cat with screws instead of glue, making it simple to pop it open and examine its guts. Several people figured out how to slice a wire here or a trace there and disable the individual serial number without breaking the rest of the cat. This has infuriated DC, who evidently never foresaw this happening.

If you give a free bucket of peanut butter and a bowling ball to every guy who asks for one, you shouldn't be surprised when some of them come up with more creative uses than taking a sandwich to the bowling alley. The nature of this toy (electronics) and the personality types of those likely to receive it (guys) makes dissection inevitable. Yet Digital Convergence seems amazed that anyone would do this, and is threatening legal action against experimenters who have posted their results on the web.

In 1998 congress, worried that the entertainment and software companies weren't making enough money, gifted them with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It makes it illegal to do things computer geeks had been doing for decades, including reverse engineering software and bypassing copy protection. The law applies to software, and software only, but Digital Convergence seems intent on misapplying it to their hardware. They are constantly revising their End User License agreement; some versions even prohibited disposal of the device. "Here's a gift you can never throw away."

Note to every company in the world: Never, ever, release a device of any kind, not even an espresso machine, without supplying a Linux driver. If you do, Linux users will gleefully reverse engineer it and write their own driver, and an application or two, which will hit the Internet faster than a tuxedo hits the floor on prom night. (While you went to the prom, Linux users were home writing drivers for their espresso machines.) And once it's on the Internet you will never, ever stop its distribution.

The clever encryption used by DC took nearly a half-hour to break, and figuring out which wires to cut to achieve various effects didn't take much longer. The results, including photos that show you exactly which traces to cut to disable the serial number
I got yer intellectual property right here, pal.
A Flying Butt Monkey (shown with his wings retracted) displays his deadly paintball gun.
(while leaving the rest of the thing functioning) are available on several web sites. One of the first was Flyingbuttmonkeys received a cease and desist letter from DC's bottom feeders, alleging that they (the buttmonkeys) were somehow infringing on DC's intellectual property rights. When flyingbuttmonkeys asked for clarification and more specifics, they received another vague letter that was little more than a rephrasing of the first. In what's becoming a common tradition when dealing with bottom feeders on the Internet, the buttmonkeys (flying) posted the letters on their site for everyone to enjoy. It's tremendously amusing to see these oh-so-professional lawyers, with their fancy letterhead and "esquire" signatures, using the phrase "flyingbuttmonkeys" over and over again.

Flyingbuttmonkeys isn't the only site with info on dissecting Cue Cats, but I featured them in this article because they were one of the first and because "flyingbuttmonkeys" is so much fun to say and type that I did it twice in this sentence alone, and hope to be able to do it at least once more before the end of this article.

So now this goofy thing is on my desk on a pile of other goofy things I'm also bored with. I've already scanned all my embarrassing personal products into it, and I don't read Wired in front of my PC. (The only place I have time to deal with Wired is the bathroom. Finding the occasional article buried within the pages and pages of ads is the geek version of "Where’s Waldo.") But it's not entirely useless. The LEDs are so bright the thing serves as an eerie reddish night light. It might even frighten intruders. I inadvertently left it pointing toward the window and last night I noticed, from across the street, that it looked like a laser gun sight was being aimed out of the window. It might be just the thing to scare away a Digital Convergence bottom feeder, but I don't think it would even slow down a flyingbuttmonkey.

Other Links

Update: About a year after this article was published, the kitty died.

Here's a Salon article about the sillyness of it all.

October, 2000


© 2000 Dave Hitt

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