Lispian Random meanderings on whatever catches my fancy

According to some … the universe is 20 years old

Just a bit of a rant today. I’m getting more than a bit tired of hearing from reasonably intelligent people that they can’t find a given piece of research because they tend to have this odd belief that the entire universe is but 20 years old.

Twenty years old? What, are you nuts? I’m sure that’s what some of you are thinking. Hardly. 20 years ago is when the first web page went up. Some seem to think that anything before that time period simply doesn’t exist, especially if it can’t be located by Google, Bing, or some other search engine. Some organizations, like the IEEE and ACM, strive to get their older archives online but many don’t have the resources.

And so I am faced with folks who simply can’t seem to comprehend the notion that a lot of research was done “back in the paleolithic”, as my kids tend to say (i.e., before the 90s). A bit of searching in a library or a good online index of articles for journals would assist even the dullest of researchers in determining what’s out there.

Similarly, I tired of supposed researchers who simply give a new name to an idea and then proclaim it “new”, as if a similar idea with a different name was somehow now utterly irrelevant. A more detailed search within an area is a good thing to attempt. Researchers should also strive to examine older, hardware-based solutions as many times we paleolithic types tended to build hardware to resolve a problem since software was so slow. This is especially true in information security.

The advantage to looking into these “ancient” archives is that there aren’t that many authors. Back when I started in information security there were about 200 of us doing and publishing research. Thus, finding a good set of links to those authors will provide a nice, compact set of documents. An easy way to accomplish this is to realize that much of information security arose from the seminal works of Bell & LaPadula, Anderson, and Saltzer & Schroeder. Yeah, those are back from the late 60s and early 70s, but they laid the foundation and provided most of the information pertaining to security problems and solutions. It’s not like we have newer problems today. We only have more of the same problem courtesy of more computers, faster connectivity, etc. We had viruses back in the 80s, but getting computers infected required sneakernet or other solutions but it still happened. Today, networks provide us a nice fast vector.

Another thing that irks me is the seeming unwillingness of some to look at the other fields for inspiration and solutions. Mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, social sciences, philosophy, etc. all offer deep thoughts on complex problems many of which can be applied directly to some of our most vexing problems today. What was “pure” in the olden days is most probably “applicative” today. I see this all the time with the application of techniques based on the mathematics of the likes of Hardy, for example.

Thus for all my research friends out there, look to the past of the computer industry and beyond. Look at mathematical papers from 200 years ago. Look to physics. Look around and you might just find that some old algorithm will solve your problem. Remember, just because you can’t find it via a simple internet search does not mean it doesn’t exist. It just means you need to do a bit more legwork. Besides, the search may result in some interesting, serendipitous findings that may lead to even more lucrative research. But you’ll never know if you rely totally on search engines and not on your own faculties.

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September 2010
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