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


8 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Time -or- Damnit, I’m Not Done Yet!”

  1. John M Hasenauer Says:

    Well said Spaf! Where did all this time go to? But I’ve lived as best as I could and I value what I’ve learned through experience.


  2. - mo Says:

    You can explain it to them, but you cannot understand it for them.


  3. Robin Roberts Says:

    Happy Birthday!! With great emphasis on the “happy” part! I had a friend in their 80s who said that they decided it was easier (and took less time) every day to be thankful for the parts of their body that worked, rather than frustrated by the parts that didn’t. For me, the worst thing about aging (besides gravity) is wishing I knew back then what I know now. We were once “those dam young’uns”. We may not have as much time left as those kids do, but we’re much smarter about how to spend our time and live our lives well. Jimmy Buffett says that “wrinkles only go where smiles have been”. May you live long and get wrinkly.


  4. Leah Newell Says:

    Ok, I bit. I read the entire oral history. Why? We have a student hopefully close to the pivotal decision about remaining in academia after earning a computer security related PhD, going into industry, finding private research or pursuing government related work. I decided your history would be one view of the world I am not as familiar with. Now I can talk to him about academia more intelligently. He’s not painted nearly as sweet a picture as you have portrayed.

    Your path to date represents a dream outcome for someone that might choose the academic route. You have had such a fruitful set of experiences while the computer security arena has developed. Sure it has been wrought with periods of frustration while acquiring adequate financial and university support or having students stay around long enough to finish a project. But you have thrown your many “rocks” and made your “ripples” that will go for generations. You have helped those that serve the country. You have probably brought many serious meetings back to center with your good humor. The travels, friends and laughs along your way are immeasurable.

    Reading about the students you shepherded is not lost on me. Those stories hit very close to home because they are a reminder how instrumental professors have been in motivating and assisting our kids in their MANY years of school. We thought one of ours might just have a career that included asking, “You want fries with that?” For a variety of reasons high school was not a great experience – although fine academically. But a few college professors saw potential right away and he blossomed, doing research and teaching graduate labs as a young undergrad. The kids have great potential but it took some tapping to unearth and nurture. Your stories were each good to read about.

    Imagine what a Spaf circa 2050 will be doing if he/she has an ounce of your self motivation and opportunities. Boggles the mind. To think of the technologies that might exist in 2050 colliding with a Spaf-like human conglomerate or ripple from you.

    The myriad of opportunities you have made for yourself are so varied and interesting. You should inspire many more graduates to take your path/academia but it is difficult to toot your own horn (unless you are very agile).

    Someone other than you at Purdue ought to be teaching “Spaf 602” as a graduate course. This course should teach how to perpetuate your goal to create an interdisciplinary college of computer security with its own dean and further strengthen CERIAS (all things about computer security policy) as a worldwide resource. The course can demonstrate how far you went from 1986 to 2014 and postulate what can happen in the next 28 years. They can study other attempts at computer security college programs.

    Unlike you, I think it would be closer to tragic to lose the momentum you have established in a well rounded policy oriented team of researchers, students, faculty and consultants, i.e., CERIAS.

    I very much appreciated your comments on ethics; living, teaching and encouraging these from students. Sometimes it takes decades to connect the dots and realize your parents actually did have more than just the biological seeds for who you are. But students start listening to teachers about the time they decide parents know nothing. Knowing you feel deeply about reminding students and faculty to keep their integrity in tact early is good to read but hopefully it is repeated often least they forget.

    I also was pleased to see your comment, “It troubles me that we have people that view anyone outside the borders as potential adversaries or worse because that makes them that way. Even within our borders.” It is also an important concept you made about sending students out all over the world to build stronger systems no matter which borders they lived within. The world is smaller with technology and too few of my non-computer friends understand that we will be rubbing elbows around the world and therefore need better systems and people to rub elbows with.

    I understand well about having a chronic physical problem and sorry you have been dealt that blow. These problems force us in paths we don’t really choose. It’s a bitch but life could be worse and you are right about them teaching compassion. Although, think if you were 100% … the world might have had to squash you … a 100% SPAF could simply have been too much for the rate of technology and policy growth over 30 years. But you would have felt a lot better while blowing the gasket.

    I find it curious that you were delivered from the hands of Jim Gough at Tech to Victor Raskin at Purdue … those Linguists seem to have the most fascinating tales. I liked Gough’s linquistics classes. I never thought about someone specializing in the art and science of humor but it seems Victor Raskin is not just that but quite multifaceted with an impressive pedigree and journey to Purdue. You have some great company in West Lafayette.

    Well Gene, the history was interesting and I was happy to read it. Unfortunately I doubt I can get a certain person to read it, too long. It is a good read though and should be required reading for PhD candidates.

    Best of luck with your ACM VP elections this summer.

    Thanks to Jeffrey Yost for recording and your time Gene for sharing the history.

    Leah Newell


    • spaf Says:

      Thanks for the detailed comments!

      Admittedly, I did not comment on all the rough spots during my career. That might have taken another 100 pages! And starting out in academia now is probably tougher than it was 30 years ago, in part because of the heightened expectations, and in part because of the continued maturation (well, maybe) and some ossification of the field. However, someone with drive and imagination can still succeed, but the path must be continually discovered.

      Yes, there are some non-technical things I could convey. If I was less busy, I would consider offing a grad seminar in “Lessons, Hard-Won.” Perhaps when I reach emeritus status I will write that as a book….which will be such an ancient concept that no one will read it.

      I guess the final bit of response is that I think the calling of “teacher” is one of the highest, although in US culture it is one of the ones given least respect at every level. Good parents are teachers, too. Teachers try to find ways to properly shape, guide, inspire, imbue, train, and encourage others to do great things. The right combination of teacher and student (who can be peers in many ways, such as Victor Raskin and myself, respectively) can lead to wonderful things. As I noted, it is touching the future. I was hooked from the first class I taught, and I still get a thrill from being in front of a class and seeing some of the students “get it.”

      Rest assured that with your thoughtful approach to things, you have set an example for your kids that may not be obvious, but it will have a long-term positive effect. Teachers do that.


      • Leah Newell Says:

        Two other comments about your history I forgot to make.

        First, Teddy Baer at the FBI … that was choice.

        Secondly, how fortuitous that you had not accepted the Chief Technology Officer position just a few weeks earlier, and were exactly where you were when the twin towers were hit. I am sure that was a pensive drive back to the midwest for you a week later having visited with your father in poor health and at another extreme been playing footsies with people taking care of our seemingly failing national defense. I am sure their emphasis to modernize and make systems more efficient was totally shelved that week which was why you were given sound advice to not accept that position subsequent to those attacks. I remember exactly what I did that morning, extracting my kids from a school that was within 1 mile from the Illinois state capitol building (worst case scenario Leah mind at work) with a spitting mad daughter in tow because she loved school and wanted to watch it with her friends and teacher on tv. I can’t imagine how you felt where you were when they clicked on the tv especially after the Pentagon was hit. Yikes. I would have needed a drive to the west coast to settle down after that.


      • spaf Says:

        I’m not easily flustered. I’m not always quick to react, but I don’t tend to get upset or panic.


  5. Walter Says:

    When I turned 60, I too had a bout with age-induced self-pity. But it passed. Lots of people before me have passed through this stage. If they can, I can.

    Why gripe about the younger generation growing up in a different world, if we were part of creating that world? Computing was (and still is) a major change agent. If younger people have experiences that differ from ours, it is in part a tribute.

    I’m thankful that in my profession as an academic teacher, I’m constantly surrounded by young, eager, and bright young men and woman, more so than in any other line of work I know. They challenge my assumption and keep me if not young in my mind, then at least up-to-date. I have four children, most of them adults now, and they, too, enrich me through their experiences. Beginning to live vicariously, ha!

    This is how I decided to handle my approaching end-of-carreer: I will only work on things that are really, really important and really, really challenging, and that I really like to do. This means I have to say “no” to a lot of requests–review this or that, write another survey, be on all these committees, write another proposal, organize another conference, run another big project. Do I really have to worry about MOOCs, help fix the internet, analyze big private data? I take the liberty of working on stuff that’s further out. Like making programming so simple that everyone can do it. Now that’s a challenge! Everyone has programmable devices, but only a small elite can unlock its basic and amazing characteristic: programmability. Think about that!

    Liked by 1 person

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