Spaf Chooses Information Theory


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; 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 difficulty 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 when it comes to women, 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 (not for the first or last time).

Since then, I have encountered many incredible women, although none quite at this level and in this manner. 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.

One Response to “Spaf Chooses Information Theory”

  1. Lance Hoffman Says:

    Keep these up! They have me ROTFL!

    It also has me looking backwards at my life so far.


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