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REVIEW: "The Bear and the Dragon", Tom Clancy

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  • Rob, grandpa of Ryan, Trevor, Devon & Ha
    BKBRDRGN.RVW 20010703 The Bear and the Dragon , Tom Clancy, 2000, 0-399-14563-X, U$28.95/C$39.99 %A Tom Clancy %C 10 Alcorn Ave, Suite 300, Toronto,
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 5, 2001
      BKBRDRGN.RVW 20010703

      "The Bear and the Dragon", Tom Clancy, 2000, 0-399-14563-X,
      %A Tom Clancy
      %C 10 Alcorn Ave, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario, M4V 3B2
      %D 2000
      %G 0-399-14563-X
      %I Penguin Putnam
      %O U$28.95/C$39.99 416-925-2249 Fax: 416-925-0068 service@...
      %P 1028 p.
      %T "The Bear and the Dragon"

      Clancy is becoming a bit of a curmudgeon in his old age. He's still
      up there with the best when he's writing about shooting or dropping
      bombs on people, but he's started padding out the books with a lot
      more preaching (in some cases literally), and that's a lot less fun in
      anybody's book.

      Clancy may know military hardware, but he doesn't show any evidence of
      being familiar with any other technology. Binary code, while it is
      the object code that computers actually use, isn't measured in lines.
      He fundamentally misunderstands the concept of a computer virus.
      Digital telephone switches weren't around in the 1950s, and trap doors
      tend to get found, particularly when people poke at them for thirty
      years. Yes, a proper operating system can improve the performance of
      a piece of hardware (just ask any Linux devotee), but it can't work
      miracles. Ghost is a disk image program, and it does bundle files up,
      but it's used for backup or replication, not spying.

      One of the funniest mistakes in the book is the insistence that
      Chinese computers would have to store all documents as graphics files.
      (A word processor that stored material as graphics files would not be
      much use: the operator would not be able to manipulate the "text" in
      any way once it had been entered.) There have always been encoding
      systems for languages other than those that used a Latin alphabet, and
      most would now use Unicode. Ironically, for all the other mistakes,
      when we are told about a download of stolen material, the numbers do
      work out to a reasonable figure for a decade's worth of weekly
      minutes, provided nothing else was stored on the computer.

      He tapdances around encryption in this book, and, while he's obviously
      been told that 256 and 512 are magic numbers, he still doesn't
      understand what is going on in the field. 512 bits is probably not a
      safe key length for asymmetric encryption any longer, but it's way
      more than good enough for symmetric. Nobody could possibly want any
      key of 256 thousand bits. "Totally random" numbers are the Holy Grail
      of stream cyphers, but, as the sainted John Louis von Neumann has
      said, anyone who considers arithmetical methods suitable for producing
      random numbers is, of course, in a state of sin. (Clancy would be big
      on the "sin" part.)

      Details of encryption keys aside, for the moment, we have a pretty
      good idea of how strong any encryption system is. The NSA may employ
      more mathematicians than any other entity, but they don't employ all
      the mathematicians in the world, and they certainly don't employ all
      the computer scientists. Within a relatively small, but actually
      rather numerous, community, the strength of any particular algorithm
      is well known, as well as how many computer cycles it is going to take
      to break it. For a nice IDEA or triple-DES system, which is only
      nominally considered commercially secure, there simply aren't that
      many computers in the world. Yet. The myth that the NSA can break
      any code is just that, a myth. (And, yes, quantum computing has
      something to do with parallel processing, but not all that much at the
      current state of the art.)

      Given his lack of understanding of technology, and the software
      development process, it isn't surprising that Clancy is a big fan of
      the Star Wars missile defence plans. Hey, it's just a matter of
      making some software, right? Computers can do anything! The
      complexities are bound to be lost on someone who believes that Echelon
      can track, and the NSA can decrypt, every interesting phone
      conversation in the world.

      But I must admit that Clancy does get it right in the end. No piece
      of software is going to work flawlessly the first time, and it is
      usually some hidden assumption that trips you up.

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 2001 BKBRDRGN.RVW 20010703

      ====================== (quote inserted randomly by Pegasus Mailer)
      rslade@... rslade@... slade@... p1@...
      I won't stand for it, and I'm not going to take it lying down,
      so I guess I'll just have to sit it out. - Larry Wall
      http://victoria.tc.ca/techrev or http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~rslade
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