Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Klein Bottles and The Cuckoo’s Egg

Ever since I learned about Klein Bottles way back in college, I wanted one. “What is a Klein bottle?” you ask. It is a non-orientable, boundary-free object with but a single surface. It only took me a few decades, but now I finally have a three dimensional representation of a four dimensional object, which I purchased from Acme Klein Bottle. This site also has a comprehensive description of a Klein Bottle.

See this YouTube video for an excellent visual construction of a Klein Bottle.

Cliff Stoll, chief cook and Klein Bottle washer at Acme, is also the author of The Cuckoo’s Egg, a quirky tale of computer hacking and espionage. When the grant money ran out, Stoll, an astronomer at the Keck Observatory at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab (LBL) suddenly had a choice—collect unemployment or develop programs in LBL’s basement for the astronomers who still had grants. He chose to program. One task Stoll was assigned had nothing to do with astronomy, but rather to keep track of computer usage. In other words, he had to work on the accounting software. He soon stumbled upon a 75¢ accounting error assigned to a user who didn’t have a valid accounting address. His investigation of this error drew him into an Alice in Wonderland like rabbit hole that soon involved many three-letter agencies, Tymnet, and the German post office. It nearly ate up a year of his life. The hackers were finally caught and thanks to Stoll’s diligence and superb record keeping, the hackers were could be prosecuted.

Because the computers at Berkeley were not isolated, but networked to other scientific and military computers, the hacker could potentially threaten our national security. Stoll skillfully draws us into his world of trying to find the hacker, get the proper authorities involved, with varying degrees of success, and prevent the hacker from getting sensitive information. Through the story, I was able to feel Stoll’s frustrations in dealing with the bureaucracies, the thrill of trapping the hackers, and the tedium of setting up traps.

Despite that this was first published in 1989, the damage a hacker can do to any networked computer and the need for secure passwords described in “The Cuckoo’s Egg” is as valid today as it was then. Most of us don’t have military secrets on our personal computers (at least I hope we don’t), but we all do have some private information that we wouldn’t want compromised. Even though I’m a reasonably experienced computer user, this book reinforced what I knew about the need for my own security as well as informed me on certain issues that I had not given any thought, and it did so in an interesting and humorous manner. Even though there were no high-speed chases, no explosions or fires (well one, sort of, but I’ll leave that for the reader to discover), this was a thrilling page-turner. Recommended.

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