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Tubes by Andrew Bloom

Journey to the Center of the Internet

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Andrew Blum on Whether the Internet Is Fragile or Robust

  • Aug 28, 2013
As I write this, The New York Times has been off-line for about 18 hours here.  Some stories are being posted on the newspaper's Facebook page, but because of a hacker attack the main website remains down. 

This is a warning shot, according to some observers.  Syrian hackers or hackers sympathic to the Syrian regime (and who call themselves the Syrian Electronic Army) are demonstrating what havoc they could wreak if Western powers follow through on their tough talk.  The trouble follows the disruption of the Nasdaq stock exchange a week ago, which is supposed to be due to a technical glitch rather than bad guys.

Both events are troubling, and underscore how much we rely on binary code sent at the speed of light to operate nearly every corner of our lives.

According to Informationnews, the current hacker battle involves trying to wrest control "by adjusting the domain name system (DNS) settings for the hacked sites....

"The affected domain names were all registered through Australia-based Melbourne IT, which confirmed Wednesday that its systems had been compromised by hackers. The company said Wednesday that it had restored the hacked DNS credentials, locked those records to prevent further changes, disabled the legitimate account credentials that hackers had used to access its systems, and continued to investigate the intrusion."
Melbourne?  Aren't we talking about New York?  Those are questions I might have asked, had I not just finished reading Andrew Blum's recent   Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. 
A journalist who has written often for Wired, Blum began his quest when a squirrel gnawed through a fiber optic cable connecting his computers to the internet.  A little disingenuosly, he  says he wanted to know to what that cable connected him.  The result is an engaging, somewhat meandering story of his travels to find out.
To make a long story short, the cable was (and is) connected to other cables which pass through several junctions where information is routed practically instaneously, and  automatically directed to its destination.  Blum is very good at giving the (relatively short) history of how these networks were set up and what they look like.  He's also good at finding a good comparison: cases containing coils of optic fiber cable are the size of Labradors and the cable itself looks like "giant squid."  
The reader learns why you don't often get that annoying lag in transcontinental telephone conversations these days (the signals used to be bounced up to sattelites, but most now go by undersea cable: same speed, shorter distance).  Blum tells us about the secrecy at Google's data center storage facilities on the Columbia River in Oregon, and the much more open  facility at Facebook's installations a couple of hundred miles away.  The difference, he suggests, may have much to do with the way "Facebook played fast and loose with our privacy while Google vehementaly protected it."
He also tells us that those little packets of information that are our emails, web pages, pictures and stock quotations must be "goosed" along every 50 miles or so to keep moving at light speed. But what he doesn't do is give a really good explanation of how those packets are made up.  Yes, we know that binary code is just circuits off and on, but how does that get transformed into light?  Are we talking simple alternating current here?  Or something else?
The book has no maps or charts that might let us figure out why messing around with DNS in Melbourne could shut down website of giants in New York.  And Blum is rather sanguine about where this all leading us.  The internet isn't "a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world," he ends the book.  "...Wherever I am, wherever you are."
So even though I felt myself better informed when I finished the book, this morning I am considerably more concerned about where all this interconnectivity is leading us.  It makes perfect sense that Melbourne IT ordinarily involved in spreading the NYT's word around the world, and trouble there could mean trouble lots of other places. 
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September 04, 2013
An important journey into the inner workings of the internet and its infrastructure!
More Tubes by Andrew Bloom reviews
review by . June 14, 2012
Journey to the Center of the Internet
Tubes: Journey to the Center of the Internet  by Andrew Bloom is a fascinating   book which describes fully the evolution of the internet, as well as the inner workings   comprised of major data centers, data warehouses,  fiber optics cables, terminals,   routers and switches. Tubes literally goes into the internet inner workings and flips on the lights.      Bloom gets into the details of the architecture. For instance, there is a ten …
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Ranked #92
Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her new collection of short stories, Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography, will be published by Oberon Press in November, … more
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