February 11, 2010

A cuckoo’s egg

Posted in Book review tagged , , , , , , , at 8:33 am by chait83

So what does it take to write a thriller… FBI , CIA , KGB, NSA… High tech research labs of Berkley , MIT and Stanford .. add to it a little bit of innocence and goof ups of a mad ( for the mere mortals) scientist.. and you have a humourous thriller on your platter. But “A cuckoo’s egg” by Cliff Stoll is far more than just being a thriller and humour, it’s about influence of human society or a culture as a whole on technology. Usually viewed from an opposite angle i.e. influence of technology on  humans or the culture or the society as whole.

This blog is not a book review, but rather my learnings from the book.

1. Technology and people : Cliff still is thinking about the motive of the hacker. Most of researchers of his university would be more than happy if the hacker goes on and takes some effort to read their papers residing on the vast network of Berkley..What would the hacker get at the end of the day hacking into their computers. But his colleagues are concerned that this hacker would bring the network on its knees. Cliff still is not able to realise this concern. After all what would the hacker do with worthless data on their system and since he was around for at least a year he could have created havoc long ago if he had to.

Excerpt from the book.

Dennis saw the hacker problem in terms of social morality. “We’ll always find a few dodos poking around our data. I’m worried about how hackers poison the trust that’s built our networks. After years of trying to hook together a bunch of computers, a few morons can spoil  everything.”

I didn’t see how trust had anything to do with it.

Dennis replied. “You’re seeing the crude physical apparatus—the wires and communications.The real work isn’t laying wires, it’s agreeing to link isolated communities.”

Technology is not a mesh of copper wires and silicon heaps, it is the ideology or the culture of the people who define the technology. For a very long time I thought that technology would be defining the course of human culture. But it’s the other way round, technology is just a medium which at times bridges the gap between human realms and their dreams. Technology alone is just a mesh of copper wires or heaps of silicon. The very existence of the technology lies within the ideology and the culture of the contemporary society, good or bad, culture defines the technology. Culture is the soul and technology is the bodily form of the human pursuit.

2. Freedom of thought :  You would find books across the globe and over the entire human History on this topic.. freedom of thought, but to me the most important aspect of this topic that this book discusses is mutual co-operation for the freedom.

3. If you can’t break the brick wall jump over it:

Often we are pursuing things in our lives (Not specifically a scientific pursuit, but a generic pursuit) and then we give up because we come across a brick wall. We try something else and again there is a brick wall and we give up. If probability of success is less than 1%, all it means is that we need to try more than 100 times to succeed. It doesn’t mean that “nobody cares“, or there is no point in it, or you failed in the pursuit, or it’s very difficult. All it means is that is you have to keep exploring different possibilities. You have to traverse untreaded paths, and battle the rough waters to find the shore.
Wow…did that that sounds philosophical !

But here’s what Luis Alvarez has to say on how to tread the untreaded path and find the shore out of rough waters.

This excerpt from the book here which is discussion between the author and a Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez when they meet casually at the cafeteria.

Luis Alvarez: When you’re doing real research, you never know what it’ll cost, how much time it’ll take, or what you’ll find. You just know there’s unexplored territory and a chance to discover what’s out there.

Author: That’s easy for you to say. But I’ve got to keep three managers off my back.

L A : Don’t be a cop, be a scientist. Research the connections, the techniques, the holes. Apply physical principles. Find new methods to solve problems. Compile statistics, publish your results, and only trust what you can prove. But don’t exclude improbable solutions—keep your mind open.

A : But what do I do when I hit a brick wall ? Like the telephone company withholding a phone trace. Or the FBI refusing a court order. Or our laboratory shutting me down in a couple days?

L A  (People this is the most amazing part.. I would never forget):

Dead ends are illusory. When did you ever let a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign keep you away from anything? Go around the brick walls. When you can’t go around, climb over or dig under. Just don’t give up.

Permission, bah!

Funding, forget it.

Nobody will pay for research; they’re only interested in results,” Luie said. “Sure, you could write a detailed proposal to chase this hacker. In fifty pages, you’ll describe what you knew, what you expected, how much money it would take. Include the names of three qualified referees, cost benefit ratios, and what papers you’ve written before. Oh, and don’t forget the theoretical justification.

Or you could just chase the bastard. Run faster than him. Faster than the lab’s management. Don’t wait for someone else, do it yourself. Keep your boss happy, but don’t let him tie you down. Don’t give them a standing target.

When pioneers run after their pursuits like a mad bull on a rage, they scatter a lot of dust around them often leaving it for others to clean. The most important thing that Luis Alavarez talks about running like a bull, but with sanity of the goal and without scattering the dust around. This is one thing I would be internalizing in a few days.

Well that’s all folks. Read the book, it is awesome.

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