Spaf for ACM VP!

NB: This is a personal page and is not affiliated with nor endorsed by the ACM.

Last update: 2014-03-11 2100 EDT


Every even-numbered year, the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery ACM, not the Academy of Country Music) conducts elections for its Council and officers. 2014 is an election year. I was asked by the nominations committee to stand for election for the ACM Vice President position. I agreed.

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Statement

My long experience with ACM has allowed me to become very familiar with the many facets of the organization. My experience as a member of the computing profession has repeatedly shown me the great value of ACM. I strongly believe that ACM is a powerful force for advancing the profession of computing around the world, and for helping to enhance the benefits — and reduce the dangers — that computing presents to society at large, and to our members.

ACM has a long history of advancing and supporting computing research. Our conferences and publications — supported by the SIGs and a great professional staff — are the leaders in promulgating definitive new results. Our technical leadership clearly needs to continue and grow, but the path to do so is largely understood: ACM leadership must continue to provide resources, support, and encouragement to the SIGs and members who constitute that portion of our community.

However, we also see growth of a set of challenges around the use and context of computing: how do we use computing to help advance society, address issues of privacy and civil liberties in an “always on” world, increase the participation of women and under-represented groups, secure our networks and machines from both criminals and overzealous governments, and increase educational opportunities? How do we support open communication yet control fraud and abuse? How do we reconcile local culture and laws with a truly global Internet? These are all major questions beyond simply “is it possible” to use computing to make things happen, but questions of “should we do it” and “how do we do it while respecting basic rights”?

I am particularly concerned about questions related to the erosion of personal privacy by both government and industry, actions in support of women and students in computing, and the threats of computer crime and terrorism. I am certain that ACM can enhance its role to better address solutions and advocacy in all of these areas. As the premier global organization of the computing profession, ACM should be the group people inside and outside computing turn to for leadership and advice across this spectrum of issues. We should be in a position not only to respond, but to be leaders on these and related issues.

I believe that I am uniquely qualified to contribute to growth — of ACM, of the mission of ACM, and of the value of ACM to the computing profession and society. As Vice President, it would be my honor to continue my service to ACM while addressing these issues with your assistance and support.

If you are a member of ACM, I ask that you vote for me in the election this spring. (And if you are not a member, please consider joining, then voting!)

Also, please share this post with others who are in computing who may be members of ACM.

Qualifications and Experience

Typically, when running for an office, a candidate will list prior experience and honors to provide some indication that he or she is qualified, experienced, and has quality ties to the community. So, here is a partial list demonstrating my experience as a leader and innovator. A more complete narrative bio is available via my WWW pages, as is as an abbreviated academic vita.

ACM

This is a list of my ACM activities and honors. not including activities as a speaker, on conference committees, or reviewing:

  • ACM member since 1978, now a Life Member
  • ACM Fellow since 1997
  • Member of SIGCAS and SIGSAC; formerly also member of SIGPLAN, SIGOPS, and SIGSOFT
  • Chair, ACM Self-Assessment Committee, 1990–1996
  • Chair, ACM Awards Committee for the International Science and Engineering Fair, 1992-1994
  • Chair of US Public Policy Council of ACM, 1998-2014 (member since 1996)
  • ACM representative on the CRA Board of Directors, 1998-2007
  • Chair, ACM Advisory Committee on Security and Privacy, 2001–2003
  • Editorial Board of ACM Transactions on Information and System Security, 1999–2004
  • Editorial Board of ACM Journal on Educational Resources in Computing, 2007-2009
  • Associate Editor of ACM Transactions on Computing Education, 2009-2012
  • Member, ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Taskforce on Undergraduate Curricula, 1988–1991
  • Member ACM Awards Committee, 1992–1994
  • Member ACM SIG Technical Standards Committee 1992–1996
  • Member, ACM Education Council, 2006-present
  • 2004 SIGCAS Making a Difference Award
  • 2006 SIGSAC Outstanding Contribution Award
  • 2007 ACM President’s Award

Selected Other

Here are a few non-ACM offices/positions/honors

  • Professor of Computer Science at Purdue University (see vita for details of other appointments, dates, etc)
  • Executive Director, Purdue University CERIAS since 1998
  • Fellow of the AAAS since 1999
  • Fellow of the IEEE since 2001, member of the Computer Society and Communications Society
  • Fellow of the (ISC)2 since 2008
  • Distinguished Fellow of the ISSA in 2009, and Life Member
  • Chair, IFIP TC-11.4 on Network Security 1993-1996
  • Chair CSTB Committee on Depicting IT in Innovation 2009-2010
  • Member, FIRST Steering Committee 1992-1994
  • Member, IFIP TC-11.8 1993-1997
  • Member, NSF CISE Advisory Board 1998-2000
  • Member, USAF Science Advisory Board 1999-2003
  • Member US GAO ECMIT Advisory Board 2003-present
  • Member, Microsoft Trustworthy Advisory Board 2003-2005
  • Member, US President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), 2003–2005
  • Member US Air Force University Board of Visitors, 2009-2013
  • Member US Naval Academy Cyber Advisory Board, 2012-present
  • Editorial Board, Usenix Computing Systems 1987-1992
  • Editorial Board, Virus Bulletin, 1991-1997
  • Editorial Board, Journal of Artificial Life 1993-2002
  • Associate Editor, Usenix Computing Systems, 1992–1994
  • Academic Editor, Computers & Security, 1998–2009, EiC 2010-present
  • USAF Meritorious Service Medal in 2003
  • IEEE Computer Society’s Taylor L. Booth Medal in 2004
  • Honorary D.Sc. from SUNY in 2005
  • Computing Research Association Distinguished Service Award in 2009
  • Upsilon Pi Epsilon ABACUS Award in 2009
  • SANS Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011
  • Purdue University’s Morrill Award for excellence in teaching, research, and service in 2012
  • Named to Cybersecurity Hall of Fame in 2013
  • (ISC)2 Harold F. Tipton Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013

Q & A

I’m willing to answer reasonable questions about my opinions relative to the ACM VP position. Email your questions to me and I will put them up, with my responses, if they are germane. Thus, this posting will evolve with time and input. I will update the datestamp at the top of the posting whenever that happens.

I suggest that you seek answers to the same questions from other candidates for the office of VP should you be using these answers to help make your decision as to the candidate for whom you cast your ballot.

Q. What is your position on role of encryption? What are the ethical implications that might arise when the next Snowden routes their [sic] findings through Tor or its descendants? What is the role of the computing community in addressing such questions?

A. Privacy is a fundamental right, although not an absolute one. Privacy is protected by law and custom in most countries of the world. More importantly, it is a fundamental principle that ACM supports — see the ACM Code of Ethics, #1.7. As members of ACM we are committed to upholding these shared principles. Other principles also apply to the questions you pose — supporting the dignity of others, using technology safely, and honoring confidentiality, etc. (If you haven’t read the Code of Ethics recently, now is a good time to remind yourself of the principles ACM holds as important; I had a small role in helping draft these, btw.)

More generally, there will be on-going questions about the balance between anonymity and disclosure for valid law enforcement purposes. My own view is that personal and organization privacy is important, and should be preserved against anything but pursuit of the most egregious offenses. What is egregious? Cases of significant abuse of others, such as human trafficking and slavery, spread of WMD, and coordination of terrorism against civilians are all examples that come to mind; I do not believe that physical freedom and the right to life are subservient to a right to privacy. Political or religious dissent are most definitely not in the category that warrants violation of privacy rights.

The problem we have — as society and profession — is to define such circumstances and appropriately safeguard (via law, audit, and oversight) any use of methods that circumvent or limit privacy. There is no simple solution to finding that balance, unfortunately. It is not a zero-one solution.

As a profession, we should seek to help define the issues, make policymakers and the public aware of the tradeoffs, and work to establish the mechanisms and safeguards that support out views. There will never be a perfect solution, but as informed professionals we should be in a position to help shape the discussions; we should be involved in the policy decisions and not only technology development.

As ACM VP I will continue the positions I have maintained for years with USACM, including enhancing privacy protections and responsible use of computing.

Q. What do you think of the new ACM copyright policy, and when and how would you recommend that the policy be evaluated to determine whether further changes should be made? What do you think of issues of open access generally?

A. The copyright issue is not simple, unfortunately. It is deeply involved with one of the core services of the ACM — the digital library — and with our publication of journals and conference proceedings that are then collected in the DL.

The ACM Digital Library (DL) is a great resource that many people use on a regular basis. It is valued because it is available, organized, indexed, curated, and regularly enhanced with new features. All of that is not without cost, however, especially some of the provisioning that is not immediately user-visible. For instance, the ACM DL not only has a lot of users and a great deal of new input on a regular basis, but it also is a target — it is regularly undergoing attacks, including DDOS, that need constant defense and extra provisioning. (I presume some attackers would like to deface entries if they could get in.) That’s simply one example of on-going need. Maintaining the DL in perpetuity requires funding for equipment, staff, and communications, and maintaining resources for evolution and expansion. Some people point to other on-line examples as lower cost, but they do not have the same profile or content, so I’m not convinced that such comparisons are fair … especially if stretched over many decades; we want useful ACM resources to be sustainable over perhaps hundreds of years, not simply a dozen or so.

Likewise, our journals and conference proceedings are highly valued because of their content and professional production values. The factors that go into that production are not free, nor are they performed by volunteers or amateurs — there are real costs involved. Some of the costs are fixed, such as salaries and benefits for editorial staff, and are not closely tied to volume of publication. We cannot afford to give that content away without some income stream to support its continued high-quality publication.

Over the last few years, ACM has increasingly opened up access to authors while still trying to maintain a reasonable level of control both for content protection and to ensure adequate income for maintenance. Simply basing upkeep on member fees doesn’t make much sense when ACM is expanding into parts of the world where membership fees are a major barrier, and when many members don’t use the DL or subscribe to any of the publications. Fees levied against the subscribers is the current strategy, and it continues to evolve, with 4 major policy changes in the last decade.

I was on Council when the policy changed last year to make it easier for individual authors to provide more access to their work; I voted for that change. I am certain that there will be more changes yet to come, and I support continued discussion of the issues.

As to the more general issue of “open access,” I do not have a fixed point of opinion. For-profit and non-profit journals have been around for a long time, and have contributed to great success across many fields. I don’t think there is cause to view “non-open access” as a great evil, as some seem to do. It is a business model. Competition has arisen with a variety of levels of “open” in different configurations, some of which are of dubious quality, and others which seem to satisfy a set of needs; there are also for-profit journals that are high quality and some that are not. Publishers are adjusting their models in response, and the whole area is evolving. I think open discussion is valuable, and that will lead market forces to converge towards some solutions that preserve and enhance the qualities we most need (which, in turn, may or may not be what we think we want). In the end, we will have a range of solutions that meet multiple sets of needs for different audiences.

As to ACM publications and the DL, I see this evolution occurring as we continue to discuss the pros and cons of various approaches, and the policy has evolved greatly over the last few years. Version 8 of the policy is less than a year old — if you haven’t read it, you should.

As ACM VP I will be open to suggestions and comments about what we do and how we should consider changes. However, I will also continue to be concerned with how ACM is able to afford to maintain its publications and Digital Library to be high quality and useful to the membership and the profession for the foreseeable future.

Q. Someone states: “I am deeply troubled by the ‘we have to get more people to code; issue, particularly when it pushes up against the realities (or lack thereof) of the career prospects for software professionals, particularly in the face of reported ageism, salary depression associated with H1B visas, and the alleged Silicon Valley hiring collusion. Do you have any comments on this?”

A. There are many complex issues buried in this question. I will try to address a few of them, although a deeper dive is beyond what I can write here!

First, as regards getting people to learn to code — that is a good thing. We want a more literate society. Learning to code helps unlock the ability to use computers rather than require others to act as intermediaries. Learning about computing and programming helps develop problem-solving skills and thinking logically. Furthermore, learning about computing also means being in a better position to understand the limitations of computing — helping to dispel the mystery and myths that some people still have about what computers can and cannot do. If given appropriate materials and supervision, learning about computing is simply a good thing.

There is a second issue in the question about employment and development of the profession. The question is phrased as a concern about USA policies, which are non-trivial. However, it is important to realize that ACM is an international organization, and the majority of members are not inside the US…and that split is likely to grow with time and increasing membership worldwide. Thus, answers that make sense for the majority of ACM members may not be to the liking of many in the US, or India, or any other locale. We need to identify the core concepts that apply across national borders.

Part of the problem in the US (and elsewhere) is a lack of explicit differentiation among different skill sets and professionalism. There are openings for several skill sets, but not all. “Computing” is a very broad term for what we all do. Practitioners need to stay current with new trends and techniques — part of what it means to be a professional. The field changes with time, often rapidly, and the professionals need to learn and change with it if they are to stay marketable. Some employers want technicians who know a particular set of artifacts and methods. Others want (even if they don’t realize it yet!) professionals who are committed to the principles and priorities for which ACM stands.

There are also issues of regionalism and expectations. There are many good computing jobs around the US — actually, around the world — but they require that job-seekers move to where those jobs are, and to accept conditions (benefits, pay, quality of housing, etc) that may not match what they expect within their current region. That is simply an economic reality: markets get saturated in some places, and employers are willing to pay only so much for certain skill sets; after a certain point, “good enough” is sufficient if it costs less. That is not to excuse illegal collusion to suppress pay or prevent movement between jobs — that continues to be wrong, as does discrimination based on age or gender (see the next Q & A)!

ACM provides a competitive edge for computing professionals. We provide continuing education resources, publications, meetings, research resources, and opportunities for professional networking. ACM support for various activities and participation in groups such as CRA and IFIP (among others) help to increase our visibility and awareness of issues. ACM members can help keep ahead of the pack in staying current on skills and trends, and that should result in being more marketable when there is some contraction in the field.

As ACM VP I will work towards maintaining and enhancing ACM services and opportunities for the professionals, and to continue to advocate that ACM take positions to help grow and promote the field. I look forward to working with the membership to address as much of this as we can, in a reasonable, sustainable manner.

Q. What is your position as regards women and other under-represented groups in computing?

A. I’m all for them! We work in a field where computers and algorithms have no gender, no ethnicity. We appreciate their ability to function without regard to any particular sexual orientation, religion, or national origin. Why should we be any different with our fellow professionals?

Computing is a discipline of thought, of imagination, of logical rigor, and of enthusiasm. None of those are present or absent in a person simply because she or he is shaped differently, or has somewhat different anatomy, color, or size. On the other end of a network connection, there is no way to tell if someone is tall or short, male or female, young or old, standing or confined to a wheelchair, or any of many other small differences that some humans seem to notice. Instead, we interact with the person who computes and communicates — a person as an intelligent being.

We need every imagination and mind, every talented person, to help us address the many issues we face. We need to find ways to tackle large problems, eliminate bugs, ensure privacy, and make computing accessible to the world. We cannot afford to be dismissive of someone because of quirks of anatomy or genetics or accident of birth. That means accepting and treating every person equally, with equal respect, and equal opportunity. It is because we know the power of computing — of computers without gender or ethnicity — that we are in the best position to understand the rationale for equal respect.

I’ve been a champion of equal treatment for all my career — simply ask some of the people who have worked with me. I continue to talk about this topic, and addressed part of it recently in an interview (2nd question), and written about it in depth as regards women in cyber security, but those answers apply more generally than for the audiences where I presented them; rather than repeat all that here, I refer you to those linked items.

Equal respect and justice for all, within the field and outside it, are principles ACM holds dear. As members, we should note that items 1.4, 3.1 and 3.5 of the ACM Code of Ethics are items we pledge to uphold when we join ACM. Item 4.1 is equally important in this context. These are fundamental values of how we define our profession — as more than programming and algorithms.

As ACM VP, I will continue to champion the idea that respect and equal treatment are important, for the field and for society. That is something I have been living my whole life.

Other Info

Want more information on who I am, what I have done, and what I think? Here are some additional sources of info:

And feel free to contact me by email at spaf@acm.org — as a current member of ACM Council, I always willing and interested in hearing from members…and that will not change when I am ACM Vice President.

Spaf as the Easter Bunny

Prologue

As I noted in previous weeks in this blog, 15-20 years ago I wrote a regular series of essays, most intended to be humorous. This one was written in the late 1990s about an incident that occurred in 1974 — almost prehistory!

This one was written down as a result of several of my other stories, including the one about ripping my pants, I had several people inquire if I was embarrassed at that time. Well, some, but not really. As many people have discovered over time, I don’t embarrass easily. or by the things that take others aback. As my friend Becky has observed, I don’t need to drink to lose my inhibitions, because I don’t really have that many inhibitions.

Part of this undoubtedly stems from my sense of humor. I used to be willing to do almost anything for laughs. It also is probably related to my overall philosophy. I am aware of the general niceties of etiquette, and try to follow them. However, like many other proscriptions on behavior, they are guidelines and not absolute writ. Being able to step outside the lines is clearly a survival trait. Some people don’t learn this until they get married or have kids, and some never learn it. I seem to have been born with it. It helps my work in security, as well as dealing with being a klutz.

The result is that I’ve been willing to try several things that others have not, and this has led to some of my exploits. If anything, those have then strengthened my willingness to take risks. I’ve never been very self-conscious about much of anything except my dancing and initiating romantic relationships, neither of which seem to work very well.

I don’t dance. Every time I have ever tried to dance, people around me have attempted to wrestle me to the floor, put a pad between my teeth, and summon medical assistance for a grand mal seizure. Back when the “Funky Chicken ” was a dance craze, I clearly had the “crazed” part down, but not the funk (as to chicken, perhaps). That is still the case, unfortunately: I’m out of luck, and somewhat self-conscious about it.

As far as romance goes, the misfires there could be the subject of a whole book. Supposedly, women find intelligence, drive and humor sexy. I’d hazard to say I have more than the average amount of all three but from my experience, those qualities are helpful only if is coupled with looking like Antonio Banderas or David Beckham. What always happened to me (and still does, actually) was that I was really successful in reminding women of their uncles or big brothers. Unfortunately(?), projecting that image is unhelpful because none of the women I’ve been interested in find incest appealing.

But I digress. Herewith I will recount a tale of overexposure around an Easter in my youth.

The Story

One aspect of being a little gullible and not at all concerned about appearances, is that I will dress in costume for a good cause. The first real case of this worthy of the tale, outside Halloween, was in high school. I was a senior and president of the student council. The student government was participating in a community spring fair where the money raised was going to a charity — I think it was Easter Seals. Two of the other officers (on whom I had crushes that never went anywhere, because neither was into the idea of dating outside their species) got the bright idea that we should have someone dress up as the Easter Bunny at the fair. We’d get a Polaroid camera, and charge $1 to have little kids get their pictures taken with the Easter Bunny. We’d raise a lot of money for charity, and the kids would be entertained. Clearly, this was a great idea, until the topic turned to who would be the Bunny. All eyes turned to me.

It took a little convincing (well, darn little, actually; each knew she could talk me into near anything, and often did, but never anything I really wanted). However, I accepted on the condition that the others in the group had to find and obtain a bunny suit. I figured I was safe, because the fair was a week away, and where could they possibly find a bunny suit?

Where indeed. I never did discover where, but they found one. Saturday morning of the fair, they showed up with a complete suit: A huge paper maché head with big ears. White terrycloth top. 3 pairs of white, somewhat threadbare terrycloth pants. (3 pairs!?) And a box of cotton-ball puff tails with Velcro to attach to the pants.

With a resigned sigh, I donned the costume and took my seat, awaiting the first child. Who was terrified of this huge white figure with big ears and large teeth. Whose mother insisted he be put kicking and screaming in my lap. Whereupon he kicked me in a spot sensitive both to bunnies and to men in bunny suits. The paper maché head continued to grin while I momentarily lost consciousness inside the suit. My “whoof” of pain was muffled and baffled by the echo inside the head, and undoubtedly came out as some kind of cute bunny noise. Mom picked the little terror up, warned him “The bunny will bite you if you do that again!” (adding to his panic and terror) and put him back in my lap. I could only grunt through the waves of pain, so I couldn’t do anything to reassure him as he cowered in the shadow of my ears. So, with mom covering his escape route, and me holding tightly to his legs to keep from a repeat of the kick, the flashbulb went off and he proceeded to show me why the costume had come with extra pants.

He peed his pants. And my bunny pants. And on into my real pants under the rabbit pants. Not just a little, either. The kid must have been to a keg party prior to coming to see the Easter Bunny. Me? I was just being a big dumb bunny noticing that my leg was getting very warm. The kid is going “Uh-oh” and his mother is starting to apologize profusely. It takes a while for the reality to sink in, but suddenly I jump up and swear. Whereupon the mother gets very offended, grabs her kid’s hand, and walks off in a huff.

So, one kid into the morning, and we had to shut the booth. Karen and Donna (the Bunny’s attractive helpers and co-conspirators) were laughing so hard, they nearly wet themselves too (would have served them right) as the Easter Bunny retired backstage to change.

Backstage, with the head off, I surveyed the damage. A huge wet spot on my jeans. The rabbit pants were clearly wet and stained, too. So, I changed the rabbit pants and left my jeans off to dry. After all — I had the rabbit pants on, and there was no sense spending the morning smelling like I was a rabbit that hadn’t been house trained.

Back into the breech I went. At least two hours went by before the second child had an accident. This time, it was a little girl. Instead of screaming and kicking, though, she was petrified. She didn’t move. She didn’t say a thing. Her mother put her in my lap and kept saying “Go ahead, dear.” After the picture, she said “Wait a moment — my little girl wants to give the Easter Bunny something.” I figured it was a kiss, as most of the little girls had been kissing my paper maché cheek. So I bent my head her way.

Apparently, the sight of a huge head with big teeth making a lunge for her was more than she could bear. In a clear sign that physiologists don’t actually field-test their ideas, her “fight-flight” reflex clearly became the “fight-flight-pee gallons and gallons” reflex and we had to close the booth again. This time, because I was not wearing pants underneath, it streamed down my leg and into my shoe. I reemerged as the Easter bunny wearing only a T-shirt (it was hot under that costume!), undies, and socks, inside the dratted Bunny costume. We put up a sign saying “no pictures in the Easter Bunny’s lap” as we were now on the last pair of dry pants. We figured if the kids stood next to me, the worst they could do is make the tile a little wet.

Sometime during all of this we also discovered why there was a box of spare tails. Every time I got up to take a break, some smart aleck kid would run up, grab my tail, and run off. I couldn’t look around to watch for them, either — if I turned my head it only went around inside the rabbit costume and I saw the inside of the cheek; if I turned too much, I hit the cheek and my glasses would fall off inside the head. Plus, I couldn’t run in the suit to chase the kids. So, I lost a lot of tails and the young ladies “helping” me took great fun in slapping new ones on to the Velcro in the back, often harder than necessary.

When we got down to the last two tails, we decided to be a little more conservative and put safety pins in the one on the 3rd pair of pants. I went out and sat down.

Everything was going fine for a while. The kids stood next to me for their pictures, and there were no more accidents. The tail stayed put despite small tugs until my helpers or the kids’ parents could disengage the fingers associated with the tugs. I thought we might finally make it through the day intact.

Then, in the line, appeared a comely young lady. I had thought she might be the mother or older sister of one of the kids in line. She was in her mid-20s, I would guess, and not a student at our high school. In fact, inquiries afterwards revealed that no one knew who she was — no one I asked had ever seen her before (or after).

When she got to the head of the line, it was clear she was alone. She also clearly had a plan. Either someone planned it as a put-up job, or she really liked guys in rabbit suits. She gave the helpers $5 instead of the $1 for a picture and said she wanted a picture in the Bunny’s lap. Considering that she was not likely to pee on me, and she was cute enough that *I* probably would have paid to have her in my lap, I agreed.

She nestled up against me, instructed me to put my arms around her, and struck a pose that made a great picture. I’m not sure what the kids thought, but I liked it. But it didn’t end there. She proceeded to start whispering in the Easter Bunny’s mouth (she knew that the visible ears were about a foot above my real ears). What she whispered was what she wanted the Easter Bunny to bring her and do for her for Easter. I must say, I was as transfixed then as the kids I had in my lap were earlier. I’m sure if my face was visible I would have looked like a deer caught in headlights on a country road. My lap was full of warm, lovely, young woman and she had ideas of what to do with marshmallow chicks and chocolate rabbit ears that I have heard neither before nor since. I had thought it was hot in the costume before, but now it was unbearable — not only were my glasses steamed up, but my eyeballs were clouding over, and my brain was fogging inside my skull. I’m sure she could tell she was having an effect on the Bunny and she enjoyed it, so she continued. After what seemed an eternity, she stood up, demurely straightened whatever it was she was wearing, and told the kids in line that if they behaved, she was sure the Easter Bunny would make their wishes come true, because she was sure I’d make hers come true. Then she walked off.

Karen and Donna must have gotten some clue that I was in some distress (perhaps my plaintive whimpering noises), so they decided to close the booth for a short break. I decided I wanted to remove the rabbit head, chase after that woman, and let her know that as the Bunny’s chief helper, I would start right then and there to address her list of requests. I got up and started walking to the changing room, keeping my eyes on where the young lady was.

A little boy who had been waiting in line decided to make his move at that time. He ran up and grabbed my tail. I tried to turn, but only saw the inside of the paper maché. I did hear his mother, however, run up and tell him to let go of it. I assumed she had pried his little fingers off, and besides, I saw my Easter treat walking further away. So, I took a large step forward.

As near as we were able to determine later, the following things happened in roughly the same few milliseconds:

  • the mother gave the little boy a big tug to pull him away from the bunny
  • I took a big stride forward.
  • the tail, securely pinned to the pants, stayed with the pants
  • the seams of the pants, weakened from repeated washings in (undoubtedly) urine-tainted water, gave way
  • my feet, bare except for the terrycloth rabbit feet, failed to find appropriate purchase on the floor
  • the paper maché head was quite heavy, and significantly altered my center of gravity

The result of all the above was that I ended up sprawled snout-first on the floor, bloodying my nose on the inside of the costume, with the back half of the pants hanging from this kid’s grasp and my underwear on display for all to see. A deafening silence descended on the scene….or maybe I simply was unconscious. Thankfully, Karen or Donna (whichever had the camera) did not snap a picture. Instead, they helped me up and took me to the changing room.

There, we tried to salvage what we could of the costume. I quickly got dressed in my street clothes (somewhat fragrant with the odor of urea), stopped the bleeding from my nose, and exited to look for the vision who had so distracted me. Of course, she had disappeared, and no one I talked to knew who she was or where she had gone.

We lost the deposit on the bunny suit because the head had sustained some damage to the snout in the fall, the pants had been ripped, most of the tails were gone, and the whole thing needed dry cleaning. The result? We only netted $3 for charity, and I can never look at a chocolate rabbit again without the strangest. inappropriate feelings.

Bun1

Postscript

Almost 29 years to the day after this happened, I received email from Paul, the faculty member who was the advisor to the student government. He had been searching the WWW for former students and tried my name. He wasn’t sure it was me until he read the above story. Then he dove into his files and sent me a picture we took of him, his wife, and me in the bunny outfit…before the wear and tear on the suit! Wow! I looked pretty good, for a rabbit.

Spaf Chooses Information Theory

Prologue

As I noted last week (and before), 15-20 years ago I wrote a regular series of essays, most intended to be humorous. These were shared via a mailing list — this was waaay before blogs came on the scene. I wrote this one in 1998 or 1999 about events in 1980, while I was a grad student in my early 20s. I have edited it a little from the original. It is almost completely accurate, unfortunately.

The Story

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 exactly is wrong with you?” and “Shouldn’t you be medicated?”)

Well, the answer is that I have been interested in security for a very long time. When I was in junior high, I read the first edition of The Codebreakers by David Kahn, and really, really liked it. While in high school, I did some computing work using punch cards in Fortran, and as an undergrad I got a job as a sysadmin. My interest grew over time, I got my MS and then Ph.D. in computing, and when the Internet Worm hit in 1988 while I was new faculty member at Purdue, I was ready.

But there is one incident related to travel (when lots of odd things happen to me…as 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 (NB. written in 1998) 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 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 (my third choice, systems, was already decided). It was a tough choice for me at the time. The information science track was taught by two very senior and distinguished but seemingly dour and intimidating 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 — and lived. The theory option was also quite demanding — taught by two younger (at that time) faculty with outstanding reputations (Nancy Lynch and Rich DeMillo, who have both gone on to great fame). Almost everyone took this option, and sweated bullets. I had done a rigorous course in parts of the topic 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 first 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 I realized, even then, it would never be easy to find interesting women who are strongly attracted to bearded mutants (and it hasn’t been).

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 along with me to study, 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 many hours helping my uncle in the yard. We had originally only planned to be out for a few minutes, and the day started out cloudy, so I had not applied sunscreen and thus I got a very significant sunburn. On my way to the airport the next morning, 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. Seriously — if you have ever had your subconscious grab you and jerk you upright, you know what I mean. No specific sound or action triggered it, simply a siren call of the undefinable.

Standing at the end of the aisle was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life, before or since (or at least is seems that way in my memory). 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 quite shy and not very good with small talk. 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, although I have not been passed to anyone by my cousins. Still, considering my historical behavior, fruitcake may be an incredibly apt metaphor.

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. Did I mention how attractive she was?

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 — attractive women always seem to know when they have stunned potential prey.) 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 something — anything: my conscious mind is no longer in control. She has direct control of my limbic system.

“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). Heck, give me a napkin and a fork, and I’ll write something in my own blood! But I have no idea what those letters are for. So, I relied on my ready 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 — which I haven’t had time to watch recently because I’m a serious grad student. Maybe she’s in TV Guide or something like that. So I say “yes.”

She reached into the pocket of her briefcase and pulled out a copy of Penthouse 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 had 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. I was mesmerized and totally transfixed.

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. Lovely. Definitely. Hoo boy. Oh my. I am hallucinating. Very seldom in my life have I been rendered speechless. This was one of those times.

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. Usually that applies to some situation where one then wishes for eye bleach and blissful amnesia. Definitely not this case.

Now, I was sitting there, 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. If I had had even the faintest of clue back then, there is no telling where things might have progressed had I said the right thing. Of course, I still don’t have the faintest of clue, so ….

I glanced from her, to the picture, to her. None of the thoughts going through my mind were really appropriate for verbalization…in 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 (minus the dog)? Dare to dream! I figure I better say something nice about her picture, but not too forward (did I mention I was sort of shy?). 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 upper 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… from the next seat.

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? Aren’t those like old cafeterias?”

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, among others, 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 my letters now.” Crash; burn. I had been unveiled as a supreme 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 faintest hint of derisive laughter). I cannot possible express how thoroughly crushed I was at that point.

The next morning, I canceled my course registration for the automata theory course and signed up for the information theory courses. They were really difficult, and I had to take one of them twice, but I ended up passing (eventually). I think I still have the automata theory book, but I have not opened it since, although when I see it on the shelf I get a momentary odd feeling of both incredible longing and self-loathing. 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.

Since then, I have encountered many incredible women, although none quite at this level. I’m not as shy now, so I’m better able to get to know them as people, and the smart, funny ones impress me more now than simply the tanned ones. Nonetheless, they all end up rolling their eyes and backing away: With some it may take a little more time than the encounter with Tawny, although a few prescient ones do it upon introduction. It is still depressing. And 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 lives have been changed by “Depends” (and they want to talk about it). Also, 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 50 by now. I’d still be willing to send her fan mail. I hope she has had a career where she is now able to afford clothes, especially underwear.

I see London, I see France

Prologue

As I noted in my last post, 15-20 years ago I wrote a regular series of essays, most intended to be humorous. These were shared via a mailing list — this was waaay before blogs came on the scene. I wrote this one in 1999 about events in 1991. I have edited it a little from the original. It is almost completely accurate, unfortunately.

The Story

Back in about 1991, I was invited to Bell Northern Research at Research Triangle, NC to give a talk on my debugging work. (In my career to day, I have worked in distributed systems, software testing, debugging, and security, in roughly that order.) I had been on the road a lot the previous few years talking about the Internet Worm, so a talk on my debugging research was welcome. Plus, BNR was a sponsor of the SERC (then) at Purdue with which I was (then) an affiliated researcher. Plus, several of my former students were working there, so I’d enjoy the visit for no other reason than to visit them. This was not the first time I would be mistaken about travel.

I don’t remember the day exactly, but I loaded up my garment bag and flew out of West Lafayette (USAir had service to Dayton from WL in those days). I connected in Dayton, and got into the Raleigh-Durham airport rather late in the evening. Then, my adventure really started.

I got a shuttle bus and arrived at the hotel around midnight. I checked in to my room. It was the last room they had available. It was next to the elevator. The sodium arc lamp illuminating the parking lot (and several counties in the surrounding area) was perched outside, above the window for my room. Despite heavily lined curtains, the light coming in around the edges lit up the room to daylight levels. However, it looked like something out of an Outer Limits episode — this orange-red light ominously streaming around the curtains on all sides. If I opened the curtains, I saw a huge cloud of moths from the surrounding countryside (and several neighboring planets), drawn to the lights. Swooping through this were dozens of very happy bats that didn’t even need to try very hard to catch anything because the moths were so thick they could have walked on them. Very bizarre, but more interesting than anything on network TV.

Between the near constant hum and thump of the elevator, the daylight-level illumination of the room (except for that macabre reddish-orange of a sodium arc lamp) , and the thump of very large moths against the window, I felt I was in some alien environment. However, had I been kidnapped by aliens, I might have gotten more sleep. I think I was kept awake until at least 4am.

Morning arrived too quickly (as judged by my alarm clock — there was no change in the light in the room). I managed to drink about 8 cups of coffee, check out, and catch a ride to the BNR site — I don’t quite remember, but I think it was on the hotel shuttle.

My hosts were glad to see me. They showed me to a lovely conference room, and asked if I minded telecasting this talk to their other lab locations in the US and Canada. No problem for me! So, they hooked me up with a wireless mike, tested out the video links, and got my overheads set up. Then they offered me more coffee.

At this point, I was sloshing as I walked, so I took my coffee and wandered down the hall to where I thought there was a restroom. There wasn’t, so I asked someone there, who pointed me in the right direction. As I rounded the corner I was intercepted by about 3 of the people from the conference room frantically searching for me — they somehow knew where I was going and needed to intercept me. They pointed out that my wireless mike was still on, and suggested that I might shut it off before using any plumbing. I had already broadcast my destination to locations in 5 states and two countries, so I might want to go off the air before “streaming.” Ooops!

The talk went well. Q&A was fine. Lunch was great. Everything seemed to be going fine despite the lack of sleep and earlier slip-up.

One of my hosts offered to take me down to find one of my former students. As we walked through the cubicle farm, I observed a mechanical robot cart rolling along the floor, delivering mail. It would roll up to a designated spot on the floor and ring a very loud bell to alert whoever was there that it had arrived. Someone would pick up the mail from the “in” box, and put more in the “out” box, then press a continue switch. My host explained that there was an “invisible” ink stripe on the floor that the robot followed with an ultraviolet light. When it hit a cross in the line, or the line ended, it stopped and rang its bell. Nifty.

We walked a bit further and found my former student. We stood outside her cubicle for a few moments, watching her pound the keyboard. She had headphones on, oblivious to all around her. My train of thought immediately went off the rails — something that has served me well in my security work: I don’t quite think like everyone else. I watched the robot roll by and suggested to my host that it sure would be interesting to pull up the carpet tiles with the ink and place them so as to lead the robot into her cubicle. Apparently, he did this about a week later to his supervisor — the robot rolled into her cubicle, blocking the doorway, hit the end of the line and rang its alarm bell. Loudly. She about jumped over the wall. However, because there was no way out around the cart, and hitting the “continue” button didn’t help, she was trapped for about 15 minutes. I wonder if she ever found out it was my idea? Maybe that explains why I have never been invited back?

Anyhow, the rest of the day was completely uneventful. Then it was time to have some dinner and go to the airport. One of the faculty from the University of Florida was doing a sabbatical there at BNR, and he asked what I liked, and I said barbecue. He offered to take me to a homestyle barbecue place then drive me to the airport. So, I said good-byes to all. My hosts gave me a nicely gift-wrapped box as a token of appreciation for my talk. I slipped it into my briefcase to look at later. We then took off for the restaurant.

Great barbecue. Great food. But we dallied a bit during dinner and had to hurry to get to the airport. On the way out to the car, I dropped my keys, or pen or something. I bent over to pick it up and heard the very distinct and ominous sound of ripping. Now, one of three things had happened. Either someone nearby was rending their clothing, I had very badly injured myself, or my pants had ripped. Straightening up, I did a quick (and not very discrete) check. No blood or disconnected tissue that I could find. However, I did discover an opening in the back and bottom of my pants that was not supposed to be there.

Ever notice how sizes are deceiving? When you lose a tooth, for instance, as a child, the gap feels huge to your tongue? Well, this rip appeared to feel small. So, I wasn’t too concerned. Besides, I had no spare slacks, and I would be late for my flight if we delayed by trying to do something as a fix.

I got into the car, hearing the fabric rip a little more as I got in. Oh well — how bad could it be?

We had a mad dash to the airport to get there on time. I said a quick good-bye and hopped out of the car, only to hear another rip. I leaned over and grabbed my bag from the trunk to the sounds of some more ripping. Then I headed into the airport. I heard my host, Doug, break out into giggles behind me. This was more than vaguely disquieting.

Once I got inside, I discovered why he was giggling — the air conditioning hit me. The shock was not the A/C to my face — oh, no. The shock was the A/C infiltrating regions that do not normally experience A/C up close and personal. I was discovering a little of what it must be like to wear a kilt. I did not want to check out the damage, but I suspected that the little rip was now considerably bigger. In fact, with the quantity of breeze that hit me with each step, I decided the rip must now be a few meters in size. They really air-condition that airport well!

So, I swung my garment bag over my shoulder so it was hanging down my back, and I set off for the gate. I put the bag up on the conveyer belt for the X-ray, along with my briefcase, adjusted my suit coat, and took short, careful steps through the metal detector. Everything would have been fine, except the guards gathered around the x-ray. (This was pre-TSA, but they still had screening.)

“Sir? Is this your bag?”

Sinking feeling. “Yes.”

“Please come over here.”

So, I picked up my bags and took them over to the table, They asked me to unpack my briefcase. So I had to lean way over the table to unpack my briefcase. Many, many people behind me started to giggle, with a gasp or two mixed in.

Yes, I had a gaping hole in my pants, but it was worse than that. I had only been married a few years at that time, and my wife decided she really liked a particular style of underwear on me. Colored, too. I liked to humor her. So that day, in that position, I was bending over the table and flashing a pair of bright red bikini underwear to the people coming through the metal detector. I’m sure they had a lot to talk about. And I had a lot of breeze.

And why was it that I had to open my briefcase? Because my hosts had given me a beautifully gift wrapped, solid brass letter opener — that appeared on the X-ray as a 6-inch stiletto knife. (I still use the letter opener, by the way.) They took turns looking at the letter opener, and I think they also took turns scoping out the view as I repacked my bag. Grrrr. I was now blushing about the color of my underwear, not so much about the exposure as the whole airport security thing.

Collecting my bags and what little dignity I had left, I went to the gate — only to find that the flight had been delayed. So, I quickly headed to the airline club room. There, I asked the woman behind the desk if by any chance she had a sewing kit. She didn’t but she did have a half a dozen of those little brass safety pins that seem to populate such kits. Salvation! With a little effort, I could keep from flashing everyone else by using these.

So I went into the men’s room with my luggage and the pins. I took off my pants and turned them upside down to look at the hole. Of course, I dumped about 20 coins all over the floor, making a terrible racket, and leaving something else to clean up.

The hole was far worse than I thought. It wasn’t that the seam had come undone. No, the pants had been worn a little too much, and the fabric to the side of the seam had actually given way. There wasn’t even enough to hold the pins. And it was about 7 inches from one end to the other.

I did the best I could, sort of overlapping the fabric and pinning it every inch, keeping the pins to the inside to as to hide them. It didn’t look too bad in the mirror when I put them back on, either. My timing was great, too — they called my flight as I finished.

I rushed to the gate, and boarded near the end. My seat was a window seat next to a little old grandmotherly type.

If you travel much, you know “grandma” — she already has pictures of her grandkids out and ready to show anyone who is in range. So, I smiled at her, slid in to my seat, and sat down.

I was pretty proud of myself up until that moment. I had managed to deal with an embarrassing crisis, and I had improvised a solution. Yup, pretty proud of myself….until I sat down. The stress on the fabric, coupled with my weight and contact with the seat caused all those tiny safety pins to open. And mind you, these were strategically located. I suddenly discovered that acupuncture can be a form of torture, too. I tried to raise up in my seat and dislodge them by moving about a little, but they were firmly embedded into some very sensitive tissues. In fact, my wiggles about were causing them to hurt even more!

So, I had a 10 second, very intense dialog with myself, tears forming in my eyes, as the flight attendants began to tell us all about using our oxygen masks and flotation devices.

“Self,” I said, “you can sit here for an hour, in incredible pain, slowly bleeding to death from pins stuck into your nether regions, or you can remove them and look like a complete pervert.”

“Well, self,” I responded quickly “I’ve certainly looked like a pervert before! Get these damn things out of my butt!”

So, as delicately as I could, I raised up in my seat, and pulled my pants away from my bottom. I did my best to dig out the pins that were most deeply embedded there, but only got three out. The other three were located further forward and particularly painfully positioned. So, after digging around for about 30 seconds I sat down, smiled to grandma on my right who was watching in wild-eyed amazement, then undid my belt and went for the other three. I suppose the sighs of relief as I extracted them from my scrotum didn’t exactly make the scene any better.

Imagine: A strange bearded guy with a garish bow tie sits down next to you, makes faces and talks to himself. Then he starts digging around in his backside, followed by plunging his hand into his pants and sighing.

Grandma was white as a sheet and having difficulty breathing as she frantically rang for the flight attendant. I’m quickly doing my belt buckle back up and hoping to avoid being arrested. The attendant comes over just after I finish and get settled again. Grandma starts whispering frantically in her ear. The attendant looks at me with a shocked expression. Rather than look guilty, I smile at her a little quizzically, then nod at granny, shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes. The flight attendant decides maybe grandma is a little senile, but escorts her to another seat — and she’s too frightened to look back.

I was careful to carry my garment bag behind me in Dayton. Granny refused to get off the plane when we landed. She watched me very carefully, so I smiled and blew her a kiss. The flight attendants couldn’t understand what her problem was.

The commuter flight to West Lafayette was largely empty, and I had no further difficulties (but I did have a breeze).

When I got home, Kathy simply laughed hysterically at me and my wounds

I no longer wear colored underwear, except when I do the laundry and it gets a little pink. I now have salary to afford better clothes. I also carry a sewing kit in my briefcase AND in my briefcase as talismans to ward off future such occurrences. I wonder if granny ever decided to fly again?

This was also not the most embarrassing thing to ever happen to me on a trip, but that will need to wait for a different post.

The Dishwasher Story

Prologue

As I noted in my last post, 15-20 years ago I wrote a regular series of essays, most intended to be humorous. These were shared via a mailing list — this was waaay before blogs came on the scene. I wrote this one circa 1999 about events in 1980-1982. I have edited it a little from the original. It’s a little long but I hope it is worth the effort.

The Story

This is a little reminiscence of my grad student days, brought on by a visit by my former roommate, Dave. It is, like my travelogues, almost 100% based in the truth, with a few details changed to protect the guilty (and a few others forgotten because I’m getting to be a senile old fart).

During my first year of grad school, I lived in a single-bedroom apartment. This was in Atlanta, as I was going to grad school at Georgia Tech. I got the apartment in a big complex named Jade East about 2 miles from Tech, on Collier Road. The apartments were old, and a bit rundown, but the location was ideal: it was right on a bus line that went to Tech, it was near an entrance to I-75 for travel around the area, there was a grocery store a block away, and — perhaps most important for some occasions — there was a liquor store within walking distance. (The apartments have since been torn down and replaced with a more upscale apartment complex.)

I was able to convince the management of my good character, despite being a Yankee, primarily because I could afford the rent and had a real credit rating. I had been lucky enough to get a major fellowship that would cover the rent, the security deposit, and leave enough left over to buy grits and beer. I opted for the single apartment rather than look for roommates for two major reasons: 1) I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to stay, and 2) if I did stay, I was hoping my longtime (5 years) girlfriend might come to Atlanta to join me. Fate was clearly laughing behind my back, because I ended up staying in Atlanta for almost 8 years, and Diane dumped me for some yuppie about 6 months after I started grad school.

So, I spent a year running at the ragged edge of poverty, but enjoying my privacy. Right, like I had much time in my apartment. Actually, I spent most of my time in the lab or in the library, trying to study for exams and pass my courses. Another reason I spent my time at the library was the noise. My downstairs neighbors were apparently a family of 22 Asian students who never slept, but who shared their one-bedroom apartment in shifts so they could play Donna Summer disco records through industrial sound systems. This was before karaoke, so they simply sang along loudly with bad accents. Even to this day, if I hear “I Will Survive” I want to grab a broom handle and pound on the floor. (I know it was about that many people, because in 12 months, whenever I went to the laundry room there were 2 or 3 of them doing their laundry — 6pm, 3am, 7am, noon — it didn’t matter. Always someone different, always 6 loads of wash.)

After Diane gave me the heave-ho, the image of a hot bachelor pad may have come to mind. Hot it was, because the rent was so high I couldn’t afford the electric bill if I ran the A/C much. So, I usually worked until 10pm, then came home and opened all the windows and sweated a lot…by myself. I remember that there were 3 women in my classes in whom I had some interest. Unfortunately, all were sighted, mostly sane, and they refused to date outside their species (this has been a life-long problem). Tech was not exactly great for the single male, as the male-female ratio at the time was 7-2, and of those 2, 1.5 were best described as “burly” and dreaming of a career directing drilling on an oil platform in the North Sea. So, the usual visitors to my den of potential iniquity were male classmates in study sessions.

At least a few of my classmates, however, also came over to drink beers, watch bad movies on TV, or do some gaming. The really good ones did all three. One of these was a somewhat quiet classmate named Dave. Dave & I didn’t really notice each other in class at first, but we were forcibly introduced by a young woman we were both trying to ask out who told us that we’d be ideal roommates. She was right, but we thought it was a ploy so we’d stop trying to get her as a roommate. If so, it worked.

Dave & I hit it off. We had similar strange stories to tell. We liked the same odd movies. And, Dave was interested in games — something I had as a hobby at the time. So, we got a group together to do D&D gaming some Friday nights, which was principally an excuse to tell bad stories, drink warm beer, and watch bad movies. (The cable installer had left the wrong cable box in my apartment, and I had all the premium channels although I was only paying for basic service. They never fixed it.)

One weekend, we had about 6 people over to play D&D. We had what seemed like a dozen pizzas, several cases of beer, and played until 4 in the morning. I eventually went into the bedroom and fell asleep in my clothes. A few people left, and Dave and others too tired or inebriated to drive home ended up falling asleep on the floor and couch amidst the empties.

About 8am, I was awakened by the sound of the doorbell. I staggered to the door, in rumpled clothing, my eyes somewhat bloodshot, and opened it. Two freshly-scrubbed, preppy-looking young people. They wanted to tell me about their religious sect and bring the word of God to me. Well, I wasn’t particularly interested, especially before noon on a Saturday, and my lack of concentration was obvious. The young man suggested that they come in, and we could go over their Bible while sitting down. I stepped to the side so they could look into the living room — beer cans everywhere, bodies stretched out among empty pizza boxes — and took a step back. Dave had stirred himself and was sitting partially upright. Because of the lack of A/C, I seem to recall he had partially disrobed, which only heightened the effect of his disheveled appearance. He squinted towards the door, and roared something like — “Send in the woman so we can ravish her!” He then threw some dice left nearby, looked at them and hollered “The fates say to send in the man, too — she won’t be enough!” With that, he fell back to the rug, more or less in a stupor.

I decided to cut things short, seeing as they were now horrified and speechless. I put on a severe expression and asked “Does your religious group make human sacrifices?” The young man barely squeaked out “N..n…no!” So, I shook my head sadly and said “Then I’m sorry — none of us would be interested.” and I closed the door in their faces. I then stumbled to my room and went back to sleep. Oddly, I was never bothered by religious solicitors at that apartment again. This may have been coupled to the skull and crosses that were mysteriously carved into the door frame sometime in the next few days. Or, it might all have been coincidence.

Anyhow, Dave & I realized that our joint performance that morning presaged a long and productive friendship. So, when my lease was up, we looked about for an apartment to share. Oddly, we ended up at the other end of the same complex, in a “townhouse.” The location was ideal, after all (the grocery store expanded to 24 hours, and absorbed the liquor store). On many occasions we found that the “town” in “townhouse” was actually Arkham from H.P. Lovecraft, but that simply added to the charm.

Many adventures occurred at that locale over the next 5 years, and I may relate some of them in later stories. However, I will tell here the tale of the dishwasher, mainly because Dave and I got a severe case of the giggles a few nights ago reminiscing about it. Of course, we were sitting out on the porch drinking beers and giggling about life in general, but I’m sure there must be something about this that is likely to amuse sober people, too.

After Dave & I had been living in the apartment for a few years, we noticed that the management kept changing. Apparently, this complex was well known as a tax dodge. Some company would buy in, run the place for 6 months, then sell at a paper loss for tax reasons. Meanwhile, they would invest nothing in the townhouses (they kept up the single-bedroom apartments, because that is where some of the staff lived, as did some city officials). Thus, we were sort of conditioned to not expect speedy maintenance service at our end of the complex.

One fine winter day, we loaded up the dishwasher and started it. Our usual approach to this was to wait until there were no clean dishes. We’d then chip away the dried food holding the dirty dishes together in the sink, put them in the dishwasher, put in too much detergent, and wash them a few times. This was a waste of water and energy, but we weren’t really into that whole environmental mindset then (although we were preserving some odd species in containers in the back of the fridge; do you know that jalapeño peppers kept in the dark for 18 months grow pink mold that is faintly phosphorescent?). Plus, the disposal in the sink was able to chew up food less efficiently than the guy in the “before” part of a Fixodent commercial, so we usually left it to the grinder in the dishwasher: two cycles through the dishwasher could handle pretty much everything but chicken bones and one instance of Jell-O gone terribly awry.

This time, the dishwasher didn’t do its usual half-assed job. It didn’t do any job. It got a little way into the wash cycle and just stopped. We swore, we checked fuses, and we tried manually advancing the timer, but we had no success — we had a dishwasher full of dirty dishes, dirty water, and large chunks of food that just kind of floated forlornly in the gray water. So, we went over to the office and filed a maintenance report.

A week later, the dishwasher was still broken. So, we finally pulled the dishes out and washed them by hand. We noticed the water was beginning to smell bad, so we did what any other trained scientist would do — we pulled out the bottles from under the sink, and poured stuff into the dishwasher on the theory that if it would deodorize the floor, it ought to work in the dishwasher too. I seem to recall that some pine scented cleaner was the principal ingredient in this mixture. I know we got a little silly, and squirted in Windex, too, and maybe also some furniture polish. We figured it smelled bad, so some lemon fresh scent wouldn’t hurt. Besides, in a few days when it was fixed, it would all be pumped out, right? We reported the problem again to the office.

Another week went by, and Dave and I switched to paper plates. We reported it again to the office, but nothing continued to happen. Eventually, we got used to using paper plates and washing the pots by hand. We saw the apartment management come and go, but no fix was forthcoming. Throughout the spring, we did dishes by hand, used disposable plates and forks (adding a certain je ne sais quoi to our all-too-infrequent dinner dates), and forgot about the fact that we had a dishwasher.

Summer came upon us in full. The A/C didn’t work well, either (besides being an old unit, and often broken, the apartments weren’t well insulated. It wasn’t that the walls were empty of any barrier. No, it was the fact that the solid layer of cockroaches that was there instead of insulation didn’t keep the heat out). Because we were in a “high crime risk” neighborhood, we kept all the windows closed while we were at school….as if there were thieves desperate enough to steal orange crate bookcases, beanbag chairs held together with duct tape, and large packages of paper plates. The apartment would get really, really warm during the day — often above 90. So, around about August, we were complaining to a visitor, impressed with our table settings and ambiance, about the A/C being broken, and the dishwasher still being broken, and on and on. She pointed out to us that we should demand that these things get fixed, or we would pay to have them fixed ourselves and deduct the cost from our rent. As she was cute and we didn’t want to appear as wimps in front of her, we marched to the office and complained. (Footnote — didn’t help, she never came back.)

Interestingly, a month before, the apartment complex had been sold yet again. Only this time, it was to a company that wanted to turn the place around and make a long-term investment. So, they took us seriously and told us they would fix it the next day. Of course, we didn’t believe them.

The next day, Dave & I returned from classes to find all of our windows open. And all the windows were open next door (there were 4 apartments per building). Our cat was cowering in a tree in the courtyard. Our neighbors were eyeing us with incredible fear and loathing in their eyes. The wallpaper was hanging off the wall in the kitchen. The maintenance man was hovering in the distance, pale and drawn, with a wild look in his eyes and the smell of strong alcohol on his breath.

And we had a new dishwasher.

As it was later related to us, the repairman had shown up shortly after we left. He had tried to start the dishwasher from the front panel, but nothing happened. So, he decided to open it to look inside. Now, as best as I can recall, Dave and I had last opened this device about a week after it failed. At the time, it contained about 10 gallons of water, and about 2 or 3 pounds of various bits of food, including some eggs, grits, bacon grease, and other items of down-home Southern cooking. It also had about 3 cups of pine scented cleaner, maybe some lemon freshened soap, and who knows what else. And all this had been sitting in the dark for about 8 or 9 months. Most recently in 95 degree heat.

Anyhow, he undid the latch, and the accumulated gas pressure inside the unit blew the door open. The miasma that barreled out nearly knocked the poor man unconscious. I seem to recall him telling us that he threw up into the dishwasher as a matter of reflex. If so, it couldn’t have made it any worse. Heck, he could have urinated in it and it would have sweetened the mixture. 6 hours later, the lingering smell was enough to cause a mild retch reaction in passersby, so I cannot imagine what it must have been like at ground zero.

Apparently, the contents had become some primordial soup that was breeding new and interesting anaerobic life forms. A common characteristic of these life forms was that they excreted sulfur compounds and (very) aromatic hydrocarbons. There was no longer any trace of pine or lemon, or any other scent that humans normally tolerate.

The workers involved evacuated the apartment after turning on the exhaust fan in the kitchen. Of course, the exhaust fans in the cheap construction all vented to the same flue, so the the fumes got pumped into the other apartments (from our experience, when our neighbors behind us cooked their weekly feast of braised skunk in kim chee with Limburger cheese, it was imperative that we get our exhaust fan on first to prevent a kind of sharing we could do without). One set of neighbors called the gas company, thinking there had been some kind of toxic leak. Our other neighbors — who did the skunk cooking — came over for the recipe.

After bringing in a portable exhaust fan, the workers discovered that the motor had rusted from the exposure to the water and chemicals, so they needed to replace the whole dishwasher. At least, that is what they claim. They simply closed it up and removed it to an EPA-approved dump site (we hope). It is possible it was shipped to Fort Dettrick for some biowarfare program. I think that maybe they simply were afraid to bail out the contents to fix it, and decided it was worth the expense to replace it. Whatever the reason, we had a nice new dishwasher…that we didn’t use for several weeks, because we wanted to finish up using all the paper plates.

Epilogue

Oddly, thereafter, whenever Dave and I reported a maintenance problem, they fixed it right away, especially if we said “There’s no rush — we’ve put in a temporary fix.” Our cat, Waldo, refused to come back into the apartment for weeks. And the maintenance man continued to cross himself whenever he saw either of us.

To this day, we continue to wonder why we didn’t have more dates while in grad school.

An Epiphany on Time, and Loss

Prologue

15-20 years ago, I wrote a regular series of essays, mostly on my travels, but occasionally on other items. These were shared via a mailing list — this was waaay before blogs came on the scene. I have them buried on my WWW site, but not many people search them out. I may repost a few here over the next few months.

Most of those essays were intended to be humorous, and a few might actually have been so. One in particular was not. I haven’t slept well the last few nights, and for some reason, I remembered this particular post last night as I lay awake around 3:30. Perhaps it was because my sister’s birthday was this weekend. I don’t get to see her very often, which is unfortunate, because she’s a wonderful person. I didn’t appreciate her that much when we were growing up, but time gives new perspectives. That is what this essay was about, written in early 2000, about something that happened in 1978.

The Story

I used a word last night in some email I don’t use very often: epiphany. One dictionary definition of the word is “A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” Yeah, that is a good definition. There are times in our lives where some encounter or experience gives us a realization of something that forever alters our view of reality. Sometimes they are sad moments, as when you realize that your parents may be fallible, or you really comprehend that death occurs to everyone — even those you love. Sometimes it is exciting and opens new vistas: the first time I really recognized that girls were different in a nice kind of way, for instance, or the first time I rode my bike without training wheels (I’m not sure which occurred first :-). The moments don’t have to include huge events or grand revelations, so long as they reveal something of reality.

I had the strangest flashback today. I have absolutely no idea what triggered it, but it was of an epiphany of mine back in about 1978. And it has enduring influence today, more than 20 years later.

I had this friend named Mark. I haven’t heard from him in almost a decade — he stopped responding to my email and letters at some point. Not that I blame him for that, because we haven’t seen each other in maybe 15 years, and there is little in common there now but memories of a time when we were much younger and saw each other regularly. Life manages to be full as it is, and the days pass.

Mark was in my classes from at least 4th grade on. We found we had the same birthday, so that gave us an immediate bond of sorts. And we also discovered that we had offbeat senses of humor, and were a little quicker on the uptake than most of the other kids in our classes. So we hit it off. I have a picture of Mark and me in the playground in 4th grade with our arms around each other. Buddies.

So, as the years went by, Mark and I found ourselves in many of the same classes. We were in Cub Scouts together, then Boy Scouts. We shared some of the same clubs and interests. And in our senior year in high school, we ended up as two of the five officers of the student council. We weren’t the best of friends (I was too much of the nerd for anybody reasonable to want that), but we were friends, and often hung out together. After graduation, Mark and I sometimes went out to bars together, or ran into each other at parties. (To make things especially interesting, Mark’s brother-in-law became my academic advisor years later when I was an undergrad at SUNY Brockport, and I still keep in touch with him!) Mark and I kept up our casual ties even after I left for grad school — we’d visit when I returned home, and together we planned our high school class’s 10th year reunion. After that, the time and distance gradually eroded the ties that had bound us together.

Anyhow, Mark came from a family with several brothers and sisters. They were all smart, funny people (as were their parents). Almost all the kids in the family had red hair, which was especially amusing and opened them all up for teasing. I didn’t often visit their house, but a few times when I did, I recall that we often were shadowed by his younger sister, Beth (something little brothers and sisters often do). Beth was several years younger than Mark, and had freckles. I remember her as a little kid who was skinny and a bit of a tomboy. I vaguely recall that we would tease her about her freckles, or being skinny, or sometimes simply tease her about her blonde hair (the other kids in her family had red hair, as I noted above). Our teasing wasn’t really mean — we liked her, but it was our job to tease her (I was a big brother, too, so I understood the role). It was clear she was disappointed and maybe a little hurt, but I don’t think it really made a big impression on us; every elder sibling probably knows the scenario.

As time went on, and as Mark and I were finishing high school, we all had different social groups and I am certain several years went by before I saw Beth next. In fact, I think it was several years later after Mark and I had graduated from high school. We were both attending college in the area, and I recall stopping by to see him one weekend.

The small moments when life changes occur often seem innocuous at the time, but are preternaturally clear in memory. I recall being somewhat preoccupied as I walked to the door and rang the bell. The person who answered the door took me completely by surprise. She was tall, with beautiful blonde hair. An awesome smile. Such cute freckles and a lovely complexion. And at about 19 years of age, she was lithe and extremely lovely to behold — and in her halter top and shorts, I definitely beheld. I am sure I was awestruck, and a little embarrassed as I realized — this was Beth, the “little” girl we used to tease and ignore. Now, she was absolutely stunning. I now knew what I wanted Santa to bring me for Christmas. :-)

I croaked something inane like “Hello. I haven’t seen you in a long while.” She said something nice in return, laughed gently at some lame joke of mine, and called Mark. I’m sure she could tell how flustered I was (I didn’t hide it well), and I hope she found it amusing — and a little payback for some of the teasing she had endured in previous years. I don’t remember now why I was visiting Mark, but I do recall saying something like “Beth has really grown up.” His response: “I guess so. I haven’t noticed.”

The encounter gave me several things to think about in a new way, and I actually remember spending time mulling them over. I was initially incredulous that he didn’t notice the transformation. Then I looked around me and I was transformed, too.

The event was an epiphany on several levels. First, although I had frequently seen caterpillars turn into butterflies, it had never really sunk in — viscerally — that it could apply elsewhere. (Of course, sometimes the change is not in the caterpillar but in the observer!) I have had it reinforced time and again that judgements based on surface impressions sometimes miss the changes that time can make. I have tried ever since to not fall victim to those first impressions. How much different our lives would have been as children had we all known that at an early age! And how different the world could be if we all understood that now as adults…..

The second was the awareness that sometimes you get so close to a person or situation for so long, you don’t notice the slow changes that occur because they are so subtle. In the same time that Beth had blossomed, my own sister had gone from a little kid to a lovely, mature woman and I had barely noticed the change. My parents had grown older and developed grey hair and I didn’t really see the differences. I remember spending several days thereafter looking at the familiar things around me, and trying to see them with “new eyes.” It is something I try to do periodically to this day. We should never get so comfortable with the world around us that we cease to really notice the changes that are occurring.

I’ve had some of the same sense of revelation since then. I especially used to notice it when I would return to the house where I grew up, when my parents still lived there (my father sold the house and moved in 1997 after my mother died). I would notice the trees. They had the same placement as in my memory, but I remembered them as trees from 20 years before when I would see them each day and not really notice them. Now, they are taller and fuller. In my later visits, there was a visual dissonance that made me understand that I was not quite “home” as I recalled it.

In particular, I remember while growing up that every day I would sit at the kitchen table and eat meals while looking out the window. Several houses away were some tall trees with a notable fan shape to the branches at the top. I would watch them sway in spring winds, birds nest in them in the summer, leaves turn golden and drop in autumn, and snow encase them in winter. They were as familiar to me as the faces of my family.

In 1997, when I helped my father pack to move, I remember sitting in the kitchen and looking at those trees. They had grown so much taller (as had I) that I could no longer see the tops from where I sat. And when I went to the window to look out, I noticed some branches missing from what I remembered, where maybe age and ice had taken a toll (on the branches — not on my memory). I sometimes still see those trees in my dreams, as I sit at the table with my parents and sister, a young boy of 8 or so unaware of what time could — and would — do to us all.

The lesson of time is one that we seem loathe to learn, but is fundamental to understanding our lives. I see my daughter at 7 and wish I could hold her again at 5, and 3 and the day she was born. It is the magic of time that is slowing turning her from fuzzy duckling into swan, and all too soon she will be writing of her realization that her dotty old dad is getting on in years. How I wish I could stop the clock for even a few days!

Postscript, 2000

I don’t recall that I ever saw Beth again. Sadly, she died several years ago from aggressive breast cancer — a tragic loss. But I recall that small, revelatory role she played in my life, and although I haven’t remembered that moment in over a decade, it certainly had a major effect on me. I wish she were around now so I could tell her….I think she would find it amusing. (And if the mood strikes you, you can make a donation to fight breast cancer at the American Cancer Society site.)

By setting down this story, maybe it can play a role in your life. Embrace the moment, and embrace those around you. Time moves with stealth, and the present becomes the past, often without our notice. Our memories are the only way for us to travel in time, so ensure yours are full of happy times with those you care about.

Postscript, 2014

My dream last night was of those trees outside the kitchen window. In that dream, I returned to visit, and the trees were gone. I wonder what that meant?

In the time since 2000, I have lost my father and my uncle, and I am one of the last of my generation in the family. I wish I could return to a time to see them again, and listen to some of their stories, especially the ones I can’t quite remember now.

I wrote about how I wish I could hold my daughter at 7, and at 5; now she is nearly 21, and has transformed beautifully as did her aunt. I still wish I could embrace that 5 year-old at times, though.

And as I look in the mirror, I seem the same as I have every day, but to look in a picture from 2000, or 1987, or when I graduated from high school in 1974, and time has definitely taken its toll.

Embrace those around you. Time is fleeting, but memories are a great treasure.

Peace.

I was a little naughty this evening….

I use Google Voice for a consolidated phone number. It is really handy. I give out one number for people to call, and it rings my office phone, my home phone, and my cell phone. Wherever I am, the people who have the number can reach me.

However, I recently have had several wrong numbers. The most recent was a drunk young man who called me 3 or 4 times in one evening, and each time I told him he had the wrong number. He then called back within 10 minutes, grunted an apology, and hung up. Rinse, lather, repeat. The next few times, I saw the caller ID and ignored his call. I got another apology on voice mail, and some hang-ups. Grrrrrrr.

Tonight, I was working late at the office. I was tired. I was a little grumpy. I was trying to get a mailing finished to remind Purdue people to register for the CERIAS Symposium. A few more minutes and I could leave to go home.

It’s 9:30pm and my office phone and cell phone both ring simultaneously. It is a call to my GV number. I don’t recognize the number. I answer.

“Hey there!” from the receiver came a breezy, perky female voice. I would have guessed her as early-mid 20s.

I didn’t know if this was someone who I met at RSA a week or so ago (I had run out of my Purdue cards at one point, and gave out a few of my personal, non-work cards), or maybe it was one of my students?

“Hullo” I stated back.

Miss Perky came right back with “Whatcha doing?”

I now suspected that it was a wrong number, but answered “I’m online.”

Without missing a beat, she responded “I miss you.”

So, this confirms it is either a wrong number or a crank call — no woman actually calls me and says she misses me.

She immediately follows up with a question: “What are you wearing?”

Now, at this point, I could politely respond that she has obviously misdialed the number. I could observe I’m not who she thinks I am. But that runs the danger that she would hang up, then call me right back again because she has gotten the wrong number somewhere. And in her pursuit of sartorial information (or maybe it was an odd booty call) she might end up calling me several times like the drunk kid last week.

This was all running through my mind. And, as I said, I was a little tired and grumpy. I’m dangerous in those situations.

So, I paused a moment, then slowly replied “I’m wearing sandals. And silver body paint. And a purple fez with a veil. And an extra-large diaper.” I could have added more, but figured that was sufficient.

It was. There was a long pause at the other end. Then a much meeker, somewhat sheepish voice “I think I have the wrong number.”

I responded with “Damnit! That’s what all the women tell me!” Then hung up.

I think I gauged it correctly. There was no second call. She may still be sitting there, hugging her knees and rocking back and forth, hoping that the guy with the diaper and silver paint didn’t do a reverse lookup on the caller ID and is on his way to visit her. Or so I imagine.

Me? I got the letter done and headed home.

Sometimes, the crazy just takes over.

Random Thoughts on Time -or- Damnit, I’m Not Done Yet!

I have another birthday coming up. They seem to come closer together as I get older. And I can’t help but reflect more on what age has brought, beyond the obvious grey hairs (where I still have hair). I’m not even 60 yet, but I feel … old. Events going on around me add to that. The historians at the Charles Babbage Institute decided I was old enough to have my oral history collected, along with computing pioneers who have retired and died. And several organizations have — with good intent — recognized me with “Lifetime Achievement” awards. I protest that I don’t think I’m finished yet…there is more I hope to do. But it does not change the feeling that so many people think I am nearing the end. And that rubs off a bit.

With age, things change. Where once there were visions of unlimited potential, time brings a sense of limitations and finiteness. Where youth provided a sense of unlimited potential for friends and love, age brings a sense of friends lost and limits on who would want to start any non-trivial relationship with someone no longer young. Many, many things no longer seem feasible. Where did all that potential go?

Books I knew I wanted to read “someday” pile up, and I have no time to read. Places I wanted to visit remain unvisited amidst a hectic schedule and a world that seems somehow less safe for travel. Skills I wanted to master, great deeds I wanted to accomplish…all now seem beyond my reach. Some days, the biggest goal I have is getting through a day with matching socks and no compulsion to take a nap!

Age and experience often bring wisdom and insight (but obviously, not always). Youth is brash, but age can temper action. Sometimes, that’s viewed as conservatism and undue caution, and sometimes it may be…but that is often judged through the filter of impatient youth. And that sometimes creates a gulf that isn’t easily bridged, if even recognized. Some of my students listen politely at things I say, then promptly ignore them; my daughter doesn’t even listen politely. If any of those young people remember what was said, decades from now, they may get that funny déjà vu sensation. A few may suddenly realize that the old guy had some idea what he was talking about. Trying to bridge the gap of years and perspective to pass along hard-fought wisdom isn’t easy…but it almost always takes years to realize its value.

There is an ongoing sense of discovery in all this. Over the last few weeks, I have noted many of my students grousing about the weather — about how it has never been so bad. I recall bad weather 20, 30, 40 years back that was as bad — or worse — than this. To me, it is unusual but not unprecedented. Most of them were not even born yet. Comments about geopolitical issues, people around us, even “new” trendy items all don’t seem so new or surprising to me because of the benefit of a long perspective. Perhaps that difference in perceived surprise is valuable. Perhaps not. Sometimes, having a sense of newness is a good thing.

As a professor, I see more of this in a somewhat odd way. Every year, the new students are the same age, but I find the stairs a little steeper. The men look like the ones I used to study with as a student, and the woman look like the ones (I wished) I dated but never had the courage to ask. None of them seem to be aware of things I think are fundamental: they know little of history, of literature, of Monty Python routines. They have not seen the movies that moved me, nor know the lyrics of the anthems of my youth. Some of my peers view this phenomenon as callow ignorance; I recognize it simply as a different set of choices executed over their finite time to date. Still, it is a struggle to avoid a sense of judgement about those choices — I clearly never had such banal and trite pursuits when I was their age! :-)

Sigh. They are all so young. It is difficult to conceive of how the time passes, especially as I continue to age while most around me do not. However, my profession also provides a means of touching a future I know I won’t see, because my influence here as a professor will extend for many years after I am no longer around to exert it.

Ultimately, aging occurs, and I simply hope I can maintain my capacity to reason. Memory sometimes fades, but oddly, some of the most painful memories never completely recede. Thankfully, neither do some of the most joyous. Another birthday? Bring it on. It means another year of experience that few will value, but that does not mean I will stop valuing it, for me. And what I will celebrate is not another year for me, but the friends I had, the friends I have, and the friends I might possibly still make.

A few of the many apropos quotes found online:


“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

George Harrison


“They say time heals all wounds, but that presumes the source of the grief is finite”

Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince


“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”

― Dr. Seuss


“Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not.”

Stephen King, The Green Mile


And from one of my favorite songwriters and a great song about getting older:

“Can’t pretend that growing older never hurts!”

Pete Townshend lyrics in the song “Slit Skirts

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