Spaf's Journal: Gene Takes the Red-Eye


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Well, the curse of travel has me in its grip again. (I'm editing this while watching the movie "The Mummy" on the plane home, so curses are a bit on my mind at the moment.)

A few months ago, I was asked by my friend John, an editor at Elsevier, to deliver the closing talk at NetSec, a conference on network security being held in the Netherlands. The conference was to be held in Utrecht, a city I have been to before and liked. In a previous year I spoke at NetSec in Nice, France. Elsevier has always done a great job organizing conferences, they have interesting people to meet, and John's a great guy, so I said yes.

Forward a few months in time. I got mail from a Dutch firm I had never heard of before telling me that they had "taken over" the conference. There was no mention of any continuing involvement by John or by Elsevier. They demanded all sorts of information immediately (which set me a bit on edge). So, thinking that the conference had somehow been unbundled or sold, and not very pleased by the approach they had taken, I was no longer very interested in doing it. I conveyed as much in email, indicating that if John & Elsevier were no longer involved then I would only consent to do the conference if I was a paid speaker. Their reply: "okay, we'll find another speaker."

So, I cancelled my flight reservations, and booked some other meetings over the dates I had been reserving.

A few days later, I got panicked email from John. It appears that Elsevier had subcontracted the conference organization to this Dutch firm. The personnel at the Dutch firm had neglected to pass this along, and after going around and alienating several of the speakers, John was now trying to pick up the pieces and reassemble the program.

Well, after some effort and discussion, I put the conference back on my schedule, but was now stuck with another meeting and less than optimal tickets. Thus, instead of a leisurely 4-5 day trip, it came down to:

In other words, my typical European trip. Who needs sleep?

Now to explain how Tuesday started requires that I explain something about my contact lenses. My optometrist has explained that I have unusually sensitive eyes. As such, small changes in lenses make a big difference, and sometimes wearing a lens for a few days is the only way I can determine if the prescription is optimal. So, she ordered several different lenses for my right eye, for me to try each and determine which worked better overall (driving, reading, working on the computer, flying a plane, sharpshooting, competing in the triathalon, conducting sessions at the UN, and so on).

There are various systems of cleaners for contact lenses. One kind of cleaner has a solution (e.g., Alcon) that can be used as both a rinse and a disinfecting soak. It is very mild. Another system uses hydrogen peroxide as a disinfectant, and the lenses need to soak in a special container with a disc of platinum catalyst -- the peroxide is caustic, but as the extra oxygen molecules are released through chemical reaction it disinfects the lenses and the peroxide becomes plain water.

So, Tuesday noon I needed to drive to Purdue to get my passport from my office and check my mail. I decided to swap to the stored lens to see how it worked. I had tried it (briefly) a few days earlier and put it in storage. So, I took the lens out and popped it into my eye.

I had one of those fleeting, transcendent moments where I achieved greater insight, and the insight told me I was a complete and total screw-up. This brief moment of satori revealed to me that several days ago I had put the lens in a plastic container to soak, not in the Alcon, but in the peroxide. Without the catalyst disc. Think to yourself what putting several drops of bleach in your eye is like, and then you cap it off with a contact lens to make sure it stays in place.

It sure is difficult to pull out a contact lens when your eye is gushing tears, you feel like someone is power sanding your eyeball, and you can't see. And you are expending a considerable amount of effort calling yourself names.

Well, I got the lens out after a few decades (or so it seemed). I flooded the eye with drops, which stopped most of the burning. Examination in the mirror revealed that there was no visible white in the sclera -- it was all red and bloodshot. Pretty ugly (not that my face is that pretty to begin with). So, I carefully put the lens in the cup with the catalyst disc, flooded my eye again, and put in the current lens I had been using. I then went into school. Where my eye was noticed and commented on by several people. Unfortunately, I couldn't come up with a really good response other than "I'm stupid."

After returning home, I had a quick lunch, changed into the clothes I was going to wear on the flight, and then remembered I needed to bring in all my plants from the back deck. The forecast was for frost while I was away, and Kathy would not be able (or willing) to bring in all my exotic plants. So, for the next 10 minutes, I carried pots inside. And then had to change clothes, because the pots were full of rainwater that splashed and dribbled all over what I was wearing. I left for the airport 20 minutes later than planned. And then ran into construction delays on the highway. Wonderful.

I arrived at the airport with only a half-hour to spare. I ended up parking in the short term garage, because otherwise I would miss my flight. I ran in, checked my luggage, and got on the plane. And my eye started to hurt. It had been tearing up fairly steadily since the earlier fiasco, but was now really beginning to hurt and water profusely. And my eye was swelling shut. However, I couldn't do anything on the flight to Minneapolis because of turbulence -- we were all confined to our seats, and no way was I going to be sticking my finger in my eye while the plane was bouncing around. I do some really dumb things, but this wasn't going to be one of them. No, I'd save the really dumb act for a short while.

An agonizing hour later, the plane landed in Minneapolis. I hurried off the plane and into the first restroom I could find (men's restroom, that is). I had already pulled out my eyeglass case and was ready to go -- my eye had swelled half closed by now. I needed to drop off my briefcase while I worked at the sink, so I went over to where there was a large steel coat rack and shelf attached to the wall where I could set it down, underneath and out of the way. I was in a hurry, and I bent down to drop the briefcase.

When I awoke, Toto and the Tin Man were gone, and I was no longer in Oz. Instead, I was kneeling on the floor of a men's room in the Minneapolis Airport, trying to recall what happened.

Do you know if you have one eye shut, your depth perception goes to hell? And that if you bend down quickly, with a heavy case in your hand to add momentum, and you do this next to a large metal rack protruding from the wall, you may have a close encounter of the 4th kind? Well, that's what happened. I literally knocked myself out for a second. Imagine, one moment I am setting my bag down, and the next moment, I am awakening on the floor with an incredible pain in my forehead.

I figured while I was on my knees I would say a quick prayer to protect the stupid (i.e., me) for the remainder of the trip. This did not have the desired effect, because in standing up quickly, before someone came in and saw me on the floor, I hit the top of my head on the underside of the rack as well. Right into the hook. Some of you may not realize how painful this really was, because you still have hair to cushion such events. However, I got to experience the bare metal up close and personal because I am hairing impaired.

Clutching my head in two places, I staggered to the sink. Consulting my watch indicated I had not missed my flight or lost several days of my life, and that I had managed to mug myself in only about 30 seconds elapsed time. Consulting the mirror did reveal I had lost a patch of skin, several quarts of blood, and my eye still looked terrible. So, I stanched the wounds on my head, I removed my contact lenses, carefully retrieved my bag, and turned the corner to leave the restroom.....whereupon I walked into a large man entering the restroom. He was clearly going to berate me for my navigation, but upon seeing me, and perhaps assuming he had caused my battered look, he quickly sidestepped and let me by.

For the next hour at the terminal I expected to be stopped by the police and asked to file a report and describe the person who attacked me.

Finally, I got on board the flight to Amsterdam, the flight attendants giving me a rather odd look as I boarded. I settled into my seat, prepared for a restful flight. Thankfully, no one occupied the seat next to me, so I had a little room. In fact, in my section of the cabin, the crowd was quite boring -- basically, the flight appeared to be composed solely of retirees. Heck, these folks retired during the Truman administration. Northwest must have had some special deal "It's Tuesday and old coots fly 1/2 price!" or similar. The overhead compartments were full of canes and walkers. The attendants needed to shout everything two or three times to each row to be heard, and this simply added to the sense of unreality. Still, it was amusing to be the youngster of the set -- I normally don't get that feeling with all the students around.

Whenever the attendants came by with drinks, I got extra water. This was to ensure that I replenished the steady supply of tears streaming from my eye, which was beginning to feel better, but which was still quite sore. As a result, I had to make multiple trips to the toilet. As the flight wore on, this got to be more and more of an ordeal. Imagine: a near steady line of about 4 older folks waiting to get in to the head. The line is moving slowly because they are moving very slowly. (At least once, the attendant had to bang on the door -- the occupant, an elderly woman, had apparently dozed off.) Now, consider what happens when the older gents finally get to the facilities. They've been waiting in line for some time. Their prostates haven't worked properly since 1962, and they really, really need to go. Additionally, most of them can't see well and they have Parkinson's or some other palsy of the hands. The combination results in clear hit or miss, with more miss than hit. (I'm assuming this is the problem. I can't envision the grannies climbing up on the sink, leaning over and trying target practice, or anything similar. Although, I can imagine a few of the distaff readership of this journal trying that simply for the heck of it. You know who you are.) The end result was that it grew increasingly unpleasant to enter the facilities, and much more difficult to leave thereafter because the floor was so sticky. It was almost as bad as the bathroom in my apartment when I was a grad student. But that's a story for another day.

Anyhow, the trip was mostly uneventful except for that little problem. I watched the movie, "Entrapment." Interesting, but not great. I have a definite, "fondness" for Catherine Zeta-Jones, however. As I watched Sean Connery kiss her in the end (that phrasing undoubtedly created the wrong image in the minds of a few of you, and you know who you are), I was stuck by the fact that not only did he get to embrace and kiss her repeatedly, he was getting paid several million dollars to do it. Clearly, I am in the wrong line of work. All I get to kiss is my computer, and if I use my tongue all I get is a line of gggggg across the screen. Extremely unsatisfying. And only a few of you would pay to watch this (you know who you are). However, it also struck me that ol' Sean probably doesn't go around knocking himself out in public restrooms, either. Just my karma. But I digress.

The arrival in Amsterdam was completely uneventful, as was the trip to Utrecht, and finding my hotel (a Holiday Inn, no less). Grateful to have arrived, I unpacked, and prepared to clean and disinfect my contact lenses for the next day. From my bag I extracted the cleaner, the saline to rinse them, and the peroxide to disinfect them. But a thorough search revealed that I had left the container with the catalyst disc back home....with my other lens still in it. Sigh. I put fresh saline in the travel case with the lenses so at least they wouldn't dry out over the next few days.

I went to the gym to work out a little and thus wake up. They had a nice facility and I really pushed myself. It felt good, except the increased blood pressure made the sore spots on my head hurt more. Next, I took a shower and a 1 hour nap. I then joined the conference, visited the exhibitor booths, and met some of the conference participants at the reception. Following that was a very nice dinner for the speakers. Then I went to my room to go to sleep. Which I did, for all of 90 minutes, whereupon I awoke and could not get back to sleep (it was only 4pm my "home" time, so this was not too surprising). So I dialed in and read email for a while, finally falling asleep sometime after 3am local time, only to awaken 3 hours later.

The conference on Thursday went well, and both my talks seemed to have been well-received. I got to spend some time with Vesselin Bontchev, with Wietse Venema, and with Phil Zimmerman. This is one of the reasons I go to these conferences -- to get to see people like them and exchange stories and news. This was actually my first face-to-face meeting with Phil, so that was especially nice.

Unfortunately, I had no time to see the sights. Utrecht is a lovely city, especially in the old part of town. There are some lovely shops and restaurants. And as I have mentioned to a few of you, my last few trips here gave me the impression that Utrecht has a high concentration of attractive people who make people watching great fun, provided you don't get run over by a bicycle or walk into a canal. However, I had forgotten how many of them smoke (people, not bicycles or canals). It is really unfortunate to see so many people, especially young people, slowly killing themselves. And there is nothing quite so unattractive as the pervasive odor of cigarette smoke. I have gotten more and more sensitive to it over time, and it is a shock each time I visit Europe because it is so much more common over there. Pity, really.

One thing that I did see during my walks to and from the conference center were advertisements for a play/musical or something playing at the Beatrix Theater near the conference center. One of these was a 3-story banner on the building itself. The show was named "Chicago." And judging from the posters, the show consists of five women with too much makeup and scanty lingerie, and two less-than macho guys in tuxedos, also with too much make up. It's not clear what any of these people was actually supposed to be doing, whether singing, acting, or simply posing on stage. The posters simply said "Greed, Corruption, Betrayal, Seduction." It sounded like a great combination, but it wasn't at all clear how they fit together with the people on the posters. And it also wasn't clear why anyone would want to pay money for whatever it was, unless you were a fan of lingerie (NB: well, I am certainly, provided it is properly filled. Lingerie is proof that love is not blind. But I digress.) And it certainly doesn't quite fit with my impression of Chicago. Of course, I normally only visit places like Giordano's and the Shedd Aquarium, and there isn't much betrayal and seduction there, at least when I'm visiting. Maybe they really meant Oak Park, but that wouldn't translate well for a Dutch audience? (I should note that this was well before "Chicago" the movie was made....with Catherine Zeta-Jones!)

Thursday evening, after the last talk, I caught the train to Amsterdam with John and Sandy, another Elsevier editor. At the airport, I navigated through the airport and checked into my hotel room (basically a closet with a bed, a TV, and a shower). I then attempted to find my way back to the main hall where I was going to join Sandy and John for dinner. However, because of the location of the hotel, this required finding my way back through customs and passport control, and by the time I had managed that, they had left for their flight.

So, I had dinner by myself and decided to go to bed early (9pm). Which I did, and I fell asleep immediately. Only to awaken at 12:30, unable to get back to sleep. Because of some trick of the sound insulation I never heard a single plane, but the guy in the next room snored loudly enough to awaken me. So I read email again and surfed the WWW a little. I got back to sleep at 3am, only to get my wake-up call at 5am. Needless to say, by the time I get back home, I should be more than a bit fried -- 8 hours sleep in 72 is not quite the right ratio for optimal performance, even for an extraterrestrial like myself. However, those voices I've been hearing since I whacked my head inform me that I should be good for another 48 hours at least, so I'm not going to worry about it.

About 2 hours into our flight, we heard a loud BANG throughout the plane (I was in steerage in the back). I noticed there was also a decided pressure wave to accompany the sound. Several of our flight attendants went scurrying forward. I wasn't overly worried -- the oxygen masks didn't deploy, the plane didn't enter a dive, and I didn't hear any screams from First Class (beyond the usual, that is). So I waited, and sure enough the pilot came on the intercom to explain: "Ladies and Gentlemen. Some of you heard a loud noise a few minutes ago." [Correction: we all heard the noise.] "We know some of you are worried about this." [Actually, some of the people about me are clutching the arms of their seats and praying frantically.] "We had an unexpected deployment of the emergency slide on one of the doors in First Class." [Translation: someone probably had too much free booze and said 'What does this lever do?' and pulled it.] "There is no damage to the aircraft." [But several dozen people have soiled themselves from the surprise.] "We won't be using that door or the slide," [At 35,000 feet and under pressure, it would be impossible to open the door, but we'd like to for the idiot who pulled the lever.] "so please relax and continue to enjoy the ride." [We'll try to find some other entertainment for you, especially for those of you not petrified by this last event.]

I'm going to conclude this story here. I'm 35,000 feet over the North Atlantic. Luckily, so is the plane. It is a turbulent flight. According to the navigation display they have up on the screen, we're travelling at 505 mph, and it is -50 degrees outside (now that is more like Chicago). We're only an hour or so away from Detroit, where I will switch planes for Indianapolis and thence drive home. I actually fell partway asleep for the last hour. Actually, I fell partway asleep for the last several hours. My legs have been asleep for the last two hours, so those are the parts most recently. Before that, I napped for about and hour, only to wake up because I had slid off the seat with my head into the aisle, and an attendant walking backwards with the beverage cart collided with me. Talk about rude awakenings! Now I also have a stiff neck. (There's gotta be some joke in here about parity and the flight out and watching Catherine Zeta-Jones, but I'm too tired. I'm sure those of you who need such a line at this point can fill in one yourself. You know who you are.)

I will assume that nothing else is going to happen to me, and I will simply return home to a huge pile of work. If I'm lucky, I won't have anything else to add to this account. All I need to do is get a nap and heal. That's good advice for almost anyone, I think. So heal, and meditate on the vital interplay of binocular vision with depth perception if you need something to think about.

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