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REVIEW: "Learning from the Octopus", Rafe Sagarin

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  • Rob, grandpa of Ryan, Trevor, Devon & Han
    BKLNFOCT.RVW 20120714 Learning from the Octopus , Rafe Sagarin, 2012, 978-0-465-02183-3, U$26.99/C$30.00 %A Rafe Sagarin %C 387 Park Ave. South, New
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 8, 2012
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      BKLNFOCT.RVW 20120714

      "Learning from the Octopus", Rafe Sagarin, 2012, 978-0-465-02183-3,
      U$26.99/C$30.00
      %A Rafe Sagarin
      %C 387 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10016-8810
      %D 2012
      %G 978-0-465-02183-3 0-465-02183-2
      %I Basic Books/Perseus Books Group
      %O U$26.99/C$30.00 800-810-4145 www.basicbooks.com
      %O http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465021832/robsladesinterne
      http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465021832/robsladesinte-21
      %O http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465021832/robsladesin03-20
      %O Audience n+ Tech 1 Writing 2 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
      %P 284 p.
      %T "Learning from the Octopus"

      The subtitle promises that we will learn "how secrets from nature can
      help us fight terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and disease." The
      book does fulfill that aim. However, what it doesn't say (up front)
      is that it isn't an easy task.

      The overall tone of the book is almost angry, as Sagarin takes the
      entire security community to task for not paying sufficient attention
      to the lessons of biology. The text and examples in the work,
      however, do not present the reader with particularly useful insights.
      The prologue drives home the fact that 350 years of fighting nation-
      state wars did not prepare either society or the military for the
      guerilla-type terrorist situations current today. No particular
      surprise: it has long been known that the military is always prepared
      to fight the previous war, not this one.

      Chapter one looks to the origins of "natural" security. In this
      regard, the reader is inescapably reminded of Bruce Schneier's "Liars
      and Outliers" (cf. BKLRSOTL.RVW), and Schneier's review of evolution,
      sociobiology, and related factors. But whereas Schneier built a
      structure and framework for examining security systems, Sagarin simply
      retails examples and stories, with almost no structure at all.
      (Sagarin does mention a potentially interesting biology/security
      working group, but then is strangely reticent about it.) In chapter
      two, "Tide Pool Security," we are told that the octopus is very fit
      and functional, and that the US military and government did not listen
      to biologists in World War II.

      Learning is a force of nature, we are told in chapter three, but only
      in regard to one type of learning (and there is no mention at all of
      education). The learning force that the author lauds is that of
      evolution, which does tend to modify behaviours for the population
      over time, but tends to be rather hard on individuals. Sagarin is
      also opposed to "super efficiency" (and I can agree that it leaves
      little margin for error), but mostly tells us to be smart and
      adaptable, without being too specific about how to achieve that.
      Chapter four tells us that decentralization is better than
      centralization, but it is interesting to note that one of the examples
      given in the text demonstrates that over-decentralization is pretty
      bad, too. Chapter five again denigrates security people for not
      understanding biology, but that gets a bit hard to take when so much
      of the material betrays a lack of understanding of security. For
      example, passwords do not protect against computer viruses. As the
      topics flip and change it is hard to see whether there is any central
      thread. It is not clear what we are supposed to learn about Mutual
      Assured Destruction or fiddler crabs in chapter six.

      Chapter seven is about bluffing, use and misuse of information, and
      alarm systems. Yes, we already know about false positives and false
      negatives, but this material does not help to find a balance. The
      shared values of salmon and suicide bombers, religion, bacterial
      addicts, and group identity are discussed in chapter eight. Chapter
      nine says that cooperation can be helpful. We are told, in chapter
      ten, that "natural is better," therefore it is ironic to note that the
      examples seem to pit different natural systems against each other.
      Also, while Sagarin says that a natural and complex system is flexible
      and resilient, he fails to mention that it is difficult to verify and
      tune.

      This book is interesting, readable, erudite, and contains many
      interesting and thought-provoking points. For those in security, it
      may be good bedtime reading material, but it won't be helpful on the
      job. In the conclusion, the author states that his goal was to
      develop a framework for dealing with security problems, of whatever
      type. He didn't. (Schneier did.)

      copyright, Robert M. Slade 2012 BKLNFOCT.RVW 20120714


      ====================== (quote inserted randomly by Pegasus Mailer)
      rslade@... slade@... rslade@...
      [N]obody who understands computers trusts them completely.
      - `Radiant,' James Alan Gardner
      victoria.tc.ca/techrev/rms.htm http://www.infosecbc.org/links
      http://blogs.securiteam.com/index.php/archives/author/p1/
      http://twitter.com/rslade
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