Spaf's Journal: Spaf decides to pursue information theory


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• • •

I'm often asked "How did you get started in information security"? (That's usually one of the top 2-3 questions, along with "You're not wearing that in public, are you?!", "What is wrong with you?" and "Are you on medication for that?")

Well, the answer is that I have been interested in security for a very long time. When I was about 7 or 8, I read The Codebreakers by David Kahn, and really, really liked it. While in high school, I did some computing work, and as an undergrad I got a job as a sysadmin. My interest grew over time, and when the Internet Worm hit, I was ready.

But there is one incident related to travel (when lots of odd things happen to opposed to the rest of life when odd things happen to me) that had a significant effect on my career in infosec, although I didn't realize it at the time. I was reminded of it earlier today for some reason I still can't figure out. So, as people seem to find my travel stories at least a little amusing, and as I have another plane delay to kill time, I'll relate this one. Besides, I've had several of you encourage me to write up more of my stories and maybe produce a collection. This will undoubtedly be used to have me committed at a later date. This may also be a sign that several of you need a real life.

Back in the dark ages when I was young and a grad student, I was attending grad school at Georgia Tech. The qualifying exams had an option -- as a student, I could either take the exams in information science or in theoretical computer science. It was a tough choice for me at the time. The information science track was taught by two very senior and distinguished faculty. It was a field that if I wanted to do cryptography or communications would be ideal background. However, the courses had a reputation for being very demanding, and only 2 people had taken the exams in recent memory. The theory option was also quite demanding -- taught by two younger faculty with outstanding reputations (Nancy Lynch and Rich DeMillo). Almost everyone took this option, and sweated bullets. I had done a rigorous course in this as an undergrad, so I was thinking about this option as maybe the easier one to get through.

Well, it was summer, in 1980, I believe. A few months earlier I had been dumped by one of the true loves of my life, and was still exceedingly depressed. I had been sure she wouldn't wise up after 5 years of a very serious relationship but she apparently shook off the hypnosis and escaped. It was very depressing because it has never been easy to find interesting women who are attracted to bearded mutants.

To get my mind off of her, I caught a flight to St. Petersburg (Florida, that is) where my aunt and uncle lived. I spent a week down there, getting some sun, some good food, some swimming, and otherwise relaxing. I brought books to study along with me, but I can say that I spent the whole week relaxing and never even thought about opening my briefcase. The last day before I left, I spent the day helping my uncle in the yard, and I got a very significant sunburn. On my way to the airport, I could see that I was almost glowing -- it was very obvious. I felt quite warm and uncomfortable.

The clerk at the airline counter must have taken pity on me. Either that, or she thought I was a danger to others. She ended up giving me a no-cost upgrade to first class for the flight to Atlanta. The flight was only about 45 minutes, so this wasn't a big deal, but it was my first-ever flight in first class. It also was a great kindness that I hope bestowed upon her incredible karma -- I had a middle seat in coach prior to that, and I don't want to think about what it would have been like, sitting between two (undoubtedly large) people, rubbing shoulders with my sunburn.

So, I boarded the plane early and sat in a window seat at the back of first class. Feeling guilty about not doing any of my studying the whole week, I pulled out my book on automata theory to at least read a little. I figured if I could make it through the first chapter, I would be building momentum for the course. (I now know that jumping off the jetway would have given me more momentum more quickly, but that was not an option I thought about.)

People continued to board the plane. I largely ignored them. Suddenly, there was a...something...(a disturbance in the Force?)... that made me look up. Standing at the end of the aisle was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life, before or since. She was blonde, beautifully tanned, statuesque in the extreme, and incredibly poised. She was also wearing a lovely little (stress: little) lavender sundress that apparently was held on with static electricity. A lot of static electricity. Enough to surmise that she was not wearing anything under that lavender sundress, which was clearly too small for her -- there were no lines evident, only curves. Incredible effect. I think the dress clung enough that one could count freckles through it. My endocrine system kicked into overdrive: back then, I was young enough that it still worked on a regular basis.

I must admit, I was more than a bit overcome. I don't think I was actually having any conscious thoughts at the moment. But what really topped it was that she walked down the aisle .... stopped at my row.....smiled at me, and sat in the seat directly beside mine. She said "Hi". I think I said "Gleep" or something equally articulate and meaningful. Already rather warm from the sunburn, I was now several degrees warmer and rapidly approaching the point of bursting into flame. She introduced herself -- some name like "Tawny" or "Brandi" or "Bambi" or something like that. I introduced myself as "Glorp," I think. I recall my throat being very, very dry.

I don't believe I was able to form a complete sentence. It's possible I had no blood flow to my brain for a while. See, back then, besides having severe testosterone poisoning, I was rather shy and not very glib. I have never had much self-confidence around attractive women, usually because of their eventual taunts, derisive laughter , and tendency to hurt me (a characteristic of my relationships to this day). Unfortunately, I have never been God's gift to women, unless you consider gifts like Christmas fruitcake that gets passed back and forth between you and your cousin for decades on end, and then maybe I am. Come to think of it, fruitcake may be an incredibly appropriate analogy.

Anyhow, I was sitting there in a daze, trying to think of something interesting to say to start a conversation before offering to be her love slave for life, or at least the next few weeks. (Heck, the next 20 minutes would have been okay, too.) Meanwhile, her perfume is wafting over my way, causing me even more attitudinal difficulties. My pulse rate went up to about 300, and I was wondering if maybe I'd suffered sunstroke and this was all hallucination.

Some time passed in a blur, during which I think I passed in and out of consciousness while sitting there trying to act nonchalant and hoping I didn't actually melt into a large puddle in the seat. (I'm sure she wasn't fooled.) The plane became airborne, and to some extent, so was I.

Finally, after we got past 10,000 feet and the "fasten seatbelts" sign went off, she hauled out her briefcase, and started going through a *huge* stack of letters. Trying to say something to get a conversation started, I managed to recover the power of speech and croak something like "Wow, you have some pile of correspondence!"

She smiled at me. Lovely smile. Great teeth. Beautiful blue eyes. I am in deep, deep trouble if she asks me to do anything: my conscious mind is no longer in control.

"Yes, it's fan mail."

Well, I can certainly understand why she would get fan mail! Heck, if I had a piece of paper and a pen, I'd write her several right then (but I'd have to work around the puddle of drool on my tray table). But I have no idea what for. So, I relied on my wit to come back with a clever rejoinder: "Uh, Huh?"

"It's so cute. I've been getting a lot of fan mail since my pictures were published. Want to see?"

Well, of course I wanted to see. I'm thinking that maybe she's a celebrity -- movies or TV. Maybe she's in TV Guide or something like that. So I say "yes."

She reaches into the pocket of her briefcase and pulls out a copy of Penthouse or Hustler or one of those magazines -- I don't remember which one. (Not a magazine I ever saw many copies of, although I suspect I'd have difficult convincing some people of that.) Before I have any chance at all to react, she had opened it to the centerfold and plunked it down on the tray table in front of me.

Definitely her. Most definitely. Uh-huh. No tan lines. Very athletic. Amazing to some extent, in fact. Actually, amazing to every extent, including some I had never realized existed. Definitely. Hoo boy. Oh my. I am hallucinating. Very seldom in my life have I been rendered speechless. This was one of them.

I have a very vivid and active imagination (useful in scientific pursuits, at least), and when she first got on the plane, it had gone into high gear (my imagination, not the plane). Her pictures indicated I was not thinking big enough, er,.... well something like that. Let me just say that some reality cannot possibly be imagined, no matter how good an imagination one may have.

Now, I was sitting here, completely stunned by her presence, the picture, her perfume, her leaning over to my seat a little, and she's waiting for me to say something about her pictures.

I glanced from her, to the picture, to her. None of the thoughts going through my mind are really appropriate for public, at least. Should I comment that the pose looks rather uncomfortable, but rather fetching? Should I comment on that rather interestingly-placed tattoo? Was that actually her Doberman? Gee, I'm at a real loss. Then I'm thinking, do I have a chance in hell of actually experiencing this pose, up close and personal? Dare to dream! I figure I better say something nice about her picture, but not too forward. So I say, "Uh, you look pretty limber."

This appeared to have been a good comment by me. Her response was something like "I'm into gymnastics. I'm double-jointed!" And proceeds to demonstrate by doing some move of lacing her fingers together and rotating her arms behind her head, resulting in some rather pronounced forward movement of her torso. If she had had buttons, they would have popped. I'm pretty sure I popped several things, too. And, I must confess, I paid no attention to her joints. By now, I think I'd stopped breathing as I was also thinking about her gymnastics while admiring her ... flexibility.

She took back the magazine, shook off the drool, and put it away. "And what are you reading?"

Well, what I should have said was something like "A book on computing to make me rich and famous, but you are much more fascinating." Instead, I said "A book for one of my computer classes" and showed her the cover.

"Automat theory?" What's that?

Well, I tried to explain. I think I was 5 seconds into it when her eyes glazed over and rolled backwards under her eyelids. She began dozing at 10 seconds. (I have since become more accustomed to this reaction from my students when I teach my classes.) Clearly, my explanation was a bad move but I didn't catch on quickly enough and continued for some time more to try to explain automata. As my voice trailed off, she shook herself from her stupor, attempted a smile that came out more as a grimace and said "That's nice. I'll let you get back to your studies. I have to answer to my letters now." I had been unveiled as a nerd, and it was not a pretty sight, apparently. I had shot myself in both feet and been dismissed.

That was the last she said until we landed. I sat there feeling like an idiot. An incredibly frustrated idiot, at that. Had I had more presence of mind and a little more confidence, I might have tried to resurrect the conversation. However, I just sat there, sunburned and embarrassed, feeling like Rudolph's nose with no hope of Santa noticing me.

As she was getting up to go, she turned to me and said "Good luck with your automatic whatever. I'm sure it's very interesting and you'll enjoy it for years to come." Then she left. She looked as good receding as she did approaching (despite the faint echo of derisive laughter).

The next morning, I canceled my course registration for the automata theory course and signed up for the information theory course. I think I still have the automata theory book, but I have not opened it in 19 years. I've used the information theory a lot in my security work, however. The motivation may not have been the best, but the results came out okay.

Later that week, I bought a copy of the magazine to show my roommate and some other buddies. They didn't believe the story. One of them later stole the magazine. They also taunted me.

I continue to have strange encounters when I travel. But the strangers who sit next to me are far different from Tawny -- they usually don't have their own teeth, or if they do, they don't have them inserted, and their underwear is lined with "Depends" (and they want to talk about it). And I don't want to even think of them having a centerfold, because it would have to be in the the AMA Journal of Reconstructive Surgery.

Tawny's over 40 by now. I hope she has had a career where she is now able to afford underwear. I'd still be willing to send her fan mail.

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