Early Bird Gets the Internet Worm

When Robert Tappan Morris was a graduate student at Cornell in 1988, he had a clever idea: he would release a self-replicating program (or "worm") onto the Internet, reportedly in an effort to highlight security problems in computer networks. Morris's worm exploited vulnerabilities in common computer systems, allowing it to propagate at will onto new computers via the Internet. The worm was designed to use minimal computer resources, but in the wild its effect proved to be devastating.

Morris released his worm on November 2, 1988 (twenty years ago yesterday), directing instances of the program to report back to a host computer so that he could monitor its spread. The epidemic spread faster than Morris had expected, aggressively infecting and reinfecting computers around the U.S. Infected computers became overloaded and unresponsive, causing system administrators to panic. Within hours of its release, the worm had infected thousands of computers, and wasn't nearly as well-behaved as Morris had hoped. When Morris realized what was happening, he and a Harvard friend emailed information that would help stop the worm -- but it was too late, as email routes were already Morris's worm.

System administrators and computer scientists banded together to fight the worm, disassembling the program and locking down its modes of transmission. Others disconnected their systems from the Internet to avoid becoming infected. Within two days the worm was largely eradicated, but Morris's troubles were just beginning: he was eventually indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, and the U.S. General Accounting Office issued a report on the worm -- Morris had succeeded in focusing attention on computer security after all. (The report actually begins with the text: "This is the first GAO report to be made available over the Internet. GAO wants to know how many people acquire the report this way. If you are reading this, please send mail to me and I'll keep count for them. Your name will not be saved or used." I have to wonder how many emails has gotten about the report over twenty years!) Pictured at left: the source code of Morris's worm, on display (in binary form on a 3.5" floppy) at The Computer History Museum.

Morris was sentenced to three years of probation, 400 hours of community service, a $10,050 fine, and the costs of his supervision. Nearly twenty years after the worm was released, Morris is now a tenured professor at MIT; his MIT homepage makes no mention of the worm.

To read more on the worm and its aftermath, check out a contemporaneous report by Bob Page written on November 7, 1988. Network World also posted a nice retrospective of the worm last week. RTM's worm was also discussed at length in the classic Cyberpunk by Hafner and Markoff.

(Worm source code photo courtesy of Flickr user Go Card USA.)

The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]


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