September 1, 2015


Books

Time was right for math genius

If you think algorithms have something to do with music, you may struggle to appreciate the beauty of what Daniel M. Lewin did.

A graduate student at the eminent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1998, Lewin designed a set of complex mathematical algorithms (a step-by-step way of solving a problem) that nevertheless was music to the ears of the tech world because it created a far superior delivery platform for the Internet.

No Better Time

The Brief,

Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin,

the Genius Who Transformed the Internet

By Molly Knight Raskin

Da Capo Press,

200 pages, $29

In a biography titled No Better Time, Washington science journalist Molly Knight Raskin paints a compassionate account of a mathematical boy genius born in the United States who served early on in Israel's top commando force and then, while at university in the U.S., became filthy rich almost overnight by inventing technology to help make the Internet the world-changing social and commercial engine it is today.

Finally, and sadly, because of his courage, Lewin most likely ended up the first victim of 9/11 when as a passenger in business class he tried to overpower the terrorists flying American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center in New York and was probably stabbed to death for his troubles. He was 31.

Wherever he is now, the irreverent, argumentative, aggressive Danny Lewin is probably laughing himself silly over the irony that followed his murder.

As Raskin describes it, here's how Lewin's life played out: After years of struggle raising a family (including sweeping the halls of his apartment block for a cut in his rent), he was doing his graduate degree at MIT under the tutelage of his professor, mentor and close friend Tom Leighton when he came up with his sensational computer breakthrough. It hugely improved how information could flow on the Internet and allowed the service company they formed to carry unheard-of amounts of traffic for its clients.

The pair's Akamai Technologies and its delivery network made truckloads of money -- and then began to lose it when the dot-com investment bubble started bursting in 2000. They looked doomed when their clients began going out of business and their investors were threatening to bail out.

But then 9/11 happened and the Twin Towers collapsed. As a result, phone communications failed because of unprecedented volume and web traffic surged dangerously. However, the news and government sites relying on Akamai performed superbly.

So, ironically, the terrorists may have unwittingly saved Lewin and his partner's company because the crisis these killers sparked proved beyond a doubt the brilliance of their new technology and went a long way to ensuring it survived the dot-com bust.

That lesson, plus the company's commitment to preserve Lewin's memory, spurred it to carry on and succeed mightily in the still-difficult years ahead.

Today, Akamai Technologies' network circles the globe, employs 3,500 people, boasts a market capitalization of $6.9 billion and handles more than 20 per cent of all web traffic. It is headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.

There's more fascination to be found in this short 250-page biography than many a longer one.

For example, Raskin's use of a "pony express" model is impressive in explaining in layman's terms how the web works and the development problems it faced in the early '90s.

No Better Time is the chronicle of a man who gave his life to technology and gave his life for mankind.

Barry Craig is a retired journalist living in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 A1

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