Controlling the Uncontrollable

Oct. 29, 2009

He was known throughout the region as Maalika the Mystic. Actually, he had been born near Bristol, and christened Thomas Hewson just over three decades ago, placing him in late middle age for the standards of the early 15th century. He adopted the appellative Maalika at the time he opted for a career other than that of an impoverished agricultural laborer — the prevailing lifestyle of the Hewson family of Bristol. Thomas was never interested in making a living with his back.

Maalika found a convenient felled tree on a small rise overlooking a small Welsh village clustered below him in a verdant field surrounded by rolling hills. He used this pause to take stock of his Earthly possessions. He unrolled his rough blanket that contained some spare linen, worn vest and an extra pair of breeches. After arranging his clothing, he emptied the contents of a leather sling bag: a farming almanac and notebook, some dry bread wrapped in cloth, a small cap, a bundle of herbs and oils, eating and washing utensils, a pewter cup and some religious relics purchased from fellow travelers early in his career. From his belt, he laid out his knife and a small purse containing a few coins and metal trinkets. It wasn’t much, but his farming family had little more.

The sky was darkening and candles in the huts below him cast flickering, yellow splashes of light around open windows. He noticed a man with a torch crossing from his home to a shed being used to shelter cattle owing to the sounds that emanated from inside. Maalika looked to the sky and knew he would need to spend at least one or two more nights outdoors before seeking hospitality in the town. The cool, dry weather would continue at least that long.

The time here in the lonely outpost, however, would not be wasted. Maalika had a keen mind and used his powers of observation to size up the village and its inhabitants. When he wasn’t scrounging for food, he would sit and simply watch the activities playing out in the cluster of homes below him. It was a lifestyle he understood very well from his formative years in a village just like the one he was watching now. Soon, he instinctively understood the social organization of the town: its leaders, stalwart workers, children and even its ne’er-do-wells.

When it came time to enter the village, he would need all his skills to exercise his profession and earn his fees. He had orchestrated this performance a hundred times before. Maalika would arrive as a combination sage, seer, shaman and healer. The time spent here in observation would pay back ten-fold when he amazed his audience with his intimate knowledge of their crops, their families and even their personal desires. He earned his living by selling hope and a belief that these humble people could control the uncontrollable.

He was able to eat by employing his very modest medical skills. Maalika could set a broken bone or prescribe natural remedies for intestinal distress resulting from the unhealthful diet of these villagers. He could also tell fortunes for the women, amuse the children with sleight-of-hand magic and predict the future in return for a night’s stay in the barn. But he could command actual currency through his perceived ability to control the weather.

Maalika’s skills as a medieval weatherman were unequalled. He was never sure how he had acquired this ability, but he simply could read the natural world. He understood the pattern of the clouds, intuitively knew the humidity and temperature, and could make educated assumptions about the interplay between Sun, Earth, water and sky. His observations could accurately predict rain, drought, thunderstorms and hail.

How Maalika employed this knowledge was key. He couldn’t overplay his hand. Even with the dearth of education among his audiences, the locals were still wary of traveling charlatans. To maintain his reputation, Maalika had to be very careful how and when he chose to offer his specialized services and how he was to be compensated. A money-back guarantee in the event of unsatisfactory results had gained a degree of credibility among those for whom this service was performed.

A walk through untended crops provided him with a deep understanding of that season’s likely harvest and the dire need for at least another good week of rain. Rain would come, although not for a couple more days. As long as he was dry at night, he could afford to wait. When the time was ripe, and he could smell the coming storms, he would announce his arrival. He would be able to earn his fee controlling the uncontrollable, and collect the payment due for his ability to adapt the local climate and bring hope to a desperate society.

Bad things do happen — even to the best security practitioner. Being responsible for security means simply being prepared for the uncontrollable. Being prepared to deal with remedial security is just as important as your preventive strategy. If someone offers you the ability to shield you from events outside your (and their) control, it might be wise to hold on to your wallet. ?

John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and is the author of “Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology,” from Auerbach Publications. If you have a comment or question for him, please e-mail John at: [email protected].