A little suggested reading, combined with some love for recent graduates of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — the little corner of the Institute which it is now my honor to direct.
First up, the cover story in the current Technology Review, “Sun + Water = Fuel” by Kevin Bullis, who completedthe grad program in 2005. It tells the story of a discovery by MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, who has found a catalyst that may (note the conditional) make it possible to separate oxygen out of water at a cost that would make that energy source competitive or better with fossil fuels.
I had thought to blog this finding when the press release hit my inbox, but now I don’t have to. Kevin has done an excellent bit of reporting, explains what’s going on clearly, and writes it up with, I think, the correct balance of optimism and the always needed skepticism in the face of technological predictions. (See the comment thread on this article for an illustration of the line Kevin tried to walk.) He’s a writer to watch — graceful and stylish, with a true love of tech.
Then there’s this story, “The Flaw at the Heart of the Internet.“ Erica Naone is another one of our stars. She graduated from our program in 2007. This story is chilling in its account of the near miss in which Dan Kaminsky identified a significant vulnerability in the way the web matches more or less plain language names, the DNS monikers like “inversesquare.wordpress.com” with the numerical addresses by which the internet itself identiies for the locations thus named. That flaw would allow attackers to hijack DNS information and replace the intended material with content of the marauder’s own.
While Black Hat 2008 awarded Kaminsky its Pwnie Award for “Most Overhyped Bug,” Erica’s piece gives you a very good argument why (a) you should have been at least retrospectively, very, very afraid; and (b) more generally, to remember the eternal truth most vividly expressed in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that the internet is not a benign playground. There be dragons out there.*
On that note — a third article in the current Tech Review that is a true must read comes from my old friend and long-time MIT guy Simson Garfinkel. (If there were anyone with beaver-blood running in his veins, its Simson, a four (or more, I can’t keep up) Institute degree holder who is as far as I can tell, perfectly adapted to MIT’s unique intellectual island ecosystem.)
The piece, “Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth,” Simson has written what seems to me to be a very important article that emphasizes the Wikipedia’s appeal to authority as its ultimate standard of what merits inclusion in what is rapidly becoming the default web-based repository of recognized knowledge. A must read, IMHO.
(And I have one anecdote about the pitfalls of the imputation of authority of printed sources. I wrote an article not that long ago for a national publication not to be named here. The fact checker called me up to confirm some detail. I said, basically, that it had come out of my own research. She demanded a published source. I asked if my own book would do. She said yes. Sic.)
*The other pleasure of Erica’s article for me was that I finally got a semi-definitive (at least Wikipedia-worthy) pronounciation for the web-slang term “pwn” — which apparently rhymes with “own.” I had previously suggested at least partly tongue-in-cheek that it might derive from the Welsh use of the “w” as a vowel. The Welsh “cwm” pronounced “koom” exists as a loanword in English (and has also be transcribed as Comb or Coombe). Given that earlier this year I offered the suggestion/question whether or not pwn should be pronounced “poon,” following the Welsh example, and evoking Neal Stephenson’s use of the word in Snow Crash to describe what his character Y.T. does when she uses her magnetic harpoon to attach to the vehicles that can pull her along on her Kourier rounds. Sadly, inventive as that may have been, it appears that my attempt at etymology is not just wrong, but terribly, terribly so.
Image: J.M.W. Turner, “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” 1845.