Packet Rat: The Rat helps IRS mix oil and water

(GCN Illustration by Michael J. Bechetti)

No federal agency is taken to the woodshed more often than the IRS. Always cast as the bad guy, the tax agency gets beaten up when it doesn't do its job, and it gets beaten up when it does its job too well.

This year, with corporate crooks crawling out of the woodwork and Congress in the mood for a good bashing of the Enrons of this world'just in time for November elections'it looked as if the revenuers' leash might loosen a bit.

'And that means a return to random audits,' the whiskered one's buddy said. 'Just to get a good cross-section of the country so we can catch cheats better.'

With the support of a couple of powerful lawmakers, random auditing could pick up steam soon. And that would mean dusting off the old random number generator to choose the lucky taxpayers.

Which was the reason for the Rat's impromptu coffee meeting. Since the last random audits in 1988, the IRS has managed to implement a lot of technological changes despite interest groups' efforts to hamstring it. But the methods used to pick random victims, er, citizens for audits haven't been touched.

'Almost no computer-generated random numbers are really random,' the Rat warned. 'All such programs take a seed number from somewhere, such as a system's clock. But you need a truly arbitrary seed number every time.'

The wirebiter drummed his claws. 'SGI used to have a random-number site that got its seed number from images of an array of lava lamps,' he recalled. 'They shut that down because they thought it might be a legal liability if someone actually depended on it. But I heard some of the former lavaheads have a new site almost ready, at'

The Rat's buddy shook his head and said, 'I don't think we could use an outside source for this.'

'But the lava lamp may be the way to go,' the Rat argued, 'because there's a high layer of abstraction, and you can't really influence it toward a specific result. '

'What are you saying?' his friend demanded. 'That someone at the IRS would want to jigger the system to make specific numbers come up?'

'No, no,' the Rat soothed. 'I'm saying that someone outside the IRS might be able to ensure that their own Social Security number didn't come up.' He pulled up several scientific research articles on the subject of the mind's power over matter.

'According to this article, some guys at Princeton proved that the results of random-number generators can be influenced,' the furry one continued. 'Imagine a system based on ping pong, something like PowerBall. What if millions of people were wishing with all their might that their numbers wouldn't came up'the reverse of PowerBall? Some of their numbers might still come up, but the results wouldn't be truly random.'

The Rat's friend gasped.

'But using a system based on a derivative extracted from a digital image of 12 lava lamps, what could people possibly wish about the outcome? 'I hope the orange one's wax doesn't melt too fast?' There's no way to link a desired result to the source. If you want a truly random set of numbers, you need some lava lamps. Which reminds me, can I take a deduction for my collection of lava lamps as a work-related expense now?'

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at

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