Thursday, September 23, 2010

Catching A Code

The secure line rang. I picked it up, annoyed.

"Yes, Sir Harry?"

"You sound bitter."

"I am bitter. I was just nicely into Gerard Manley Hopkins and 'The Windhover'. You know, the poem where his 'heart in hiding stirred for a bird, the achieve of --"

"I know the poem. Not what I wanted to talk about."

"Pity. Well, come live with me and pay my rent --"

"Will you shut up! This is important. We are changing the book codes."

"Finally," I sighed. "I was getting tired of poring through Hardy's Jude The Obscure."

"As was I. The new text will be more direct."

This was rubbish. Sir Harry was never 'direct', but rather was a kind of Galapagos turtle, given to making slow and almost imperceptible movements when he thought no one was looking. What he was on about was our mutual need for a code when it was necessary to exchange super secretive information. We had learned to our cost that electronic data, no matter how well firewalled, could always be hacked by some Lisbeth Salander or other. (cf. Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy). Hence we simply used the Royal/Canada Post.

The code is simplicity itself. Here is a representative line:

L35-16-7R44-8-6. Easy, eh?

Not bloody likely. To be sure, it's not too difficult to decipher the first part (CODE Barry of CSIS figured it out in around ten seconds -- he is not called CODE Barry for nothing) by determining that L = left, 35 is a page number, 16 is the number of lines down that page, and 7 is the actual word. So also with the R (right) series. BUT WHAT BOOK?

And therein, as Hamlet stated, "lies the rub." If you do not know the book being used by the two people involved, the encoded information remains just that -- encoded. Yes, both sender and receiver have to work from the same edition, but this is not that difficult to arrange.

What was bothering Sir Harry was that he found out that the Americans, through the NSA, had discovered the text we had been using was the Everyman edition of Jude The Obscure. Hence the need for another text.

I emphasized to Sir Harry that text selection was not his strong suit, and asked him to recall his first effort -- Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. The Israelis were on to that after a week. I mean, why would he select a book on codes in the first place?

"Well what do you suggest, then?" he asked, a note of petulance in his voice.

I thought for a bit, then proffered my selection. He agreed, and no, I cannot divulge the title (that would be telling) but I can say that our choice does call upon we Finnegans to wake.

Let us hope we wake in time.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Good Morning, Baltimore!

No, the title doesn't presage a review of the musical "Hairspray", although my violinist daughter Isolde was once dragooned by a close friend into playing in the pit after the scheduled violinist herniated a disc. I took in the performance, and while we are not talking Wagner's Ring here, the vim and vitality of the cast made the event a worthwhile one. No, my reason for citing Baltimore had to do with two things that transpired.

The first thing involved a close colleague in The Trade who had taken out a very bad person indeed, but had not come out unscathed. In fact, he was recuperating at John Hopkins Medical Center, after having a bullet removed from his neck. I offered what comfort I could, and in the process learned an amazing fact. The surgeon who operated had discovered yet another bullet logged in his cranium that had gone undetected for years. This, I realized, would explain John's (not his real name) rather weird habit of quoting certain cantos of Ezra Pound at odd and invariably inconvenient times. One hopes for a full recovery.

The second thing concerned Isolde, who had an engagement with the Baltimore symphony and the playing of the Sibelius violin concerto. I knew this to be tricky stuff, given the pieces' somewhat Oriental cast, and was looking forward to hear how Isolde would deal with it all.

It was, however, in my hotel room at the Hyatt Regency (not a bad little hostelry) that I got somewhat rattled. In perusing the "What's On In Baltimore" brochure kindly provided by the hotel I noticed yet another sign that America's regard for education was not where it should be. To wit: the University of Baltimore was proudly offering a course in Zombies. I thought, not them too, for I recalled reading somewhere that Simpson College in Iowa used the entire spring semester writing a book on 'The History of the Great Zombie War'. (No wonder Sarah Palin is popular in Iowa.)

Ridiculous. I mean, it was not that long ago -- 1989 to be exact -- that a survey undertaken by the National Science Foundation discovered the following. "93% of Americans cannot distinguish between a proton and a crouton, think that DNA is a food additive, that radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling, and that Chernobyl is a ski resort." Zombies aside, surely things have changed for the better?

To test this, I went to the hotel lobby and asked several guests what they thought Chernobyl was. To a person all replied, "Easy. That's Cher's real name."

There are times I despair. But at night the stars do sparkle on Chesapeake Bay....

Good Morning, Baltimore!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Power of Superstition

I really did not want to write about this burning of the Qur'an nonsense, but Sir Harry wanted my thoughts, and even my kids called up seeking my opinion. This startled -- they are so engrossed in their own life-plays that they are often only dimly aware of the crap and corruption that is such a large part of geopolitical life. Apparently not this time, so here goes.

The root principle at work here is that as you believe, so it is -- the seeming makes it so. There is ample evidence for this. At one time, most believed the world was flat, a not untoward observation dictated by common sense. (Mind you, Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse, so at least someone was a wee bit ahead of his time.) Then came the belief (pace Galileo) that that earth was the centre of the universe, with the sun revolving around it. Then Newtonian physics, and now Einsteinian relativity, buttressed by Hawkings' "M" theory. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "so it goes".

And this is as it should be. As more evidence comes in, and better scientific instruments are perfected, the world view alters.

Not so with superstition.

To some, the world was created in seven days, because this is written down in the Bible. The Rock of Ages usurps the ages of rocks. A second book, the Qur'an, is held to be the literal word of God, and hence, unlike scientific exploration, cannot be altered in any way.

Now if all this were confined to temples, churches and mosques, all would be well. But it is not, and the tenets in these books seep out into society where they clash, not only with science, but with each other. And for followers to deviate...well, doubting Christians risked burning at a stake at one time, and in the present age, it is death to leave Islam.

Which brings us to Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who, along with his 30 odd followers, ignited a world-wide firestorm when he threatened to burn copies of the Qur'an because a mosque location was, in his (and God's) opinion, in the wrong place. This suggests three things.

The first is that burning books of any description is a Bad Idea. The reader here is directed towards Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451; Mr. Bradbury deals with this issue far more capably than I.

The second raises the question of why Pastor Jones is allowed in society at all. At one time, state and provincial governments ran mental institutions where the likes of Terry Jones could get the help they so obviously need. No longer -- politicians saw an opportunity to fund causes nearer to their hearts, and therefore enacted a policy of inclusion and social integration, sending all manner of mental delinquents on to the street. (In America, the NRA arms them.)

The third concerns Islam directly. Leaving aside the issue that jihadist thugs were delighted to use Pastor Jones' idiocy as propaganda suited to their purpose, the fact remains that Islam, even as a superstition with a long track record, exhibits incredible insecurity. That 30 mentally unbalanced people could produce the outrage that it did beggars belief.

But belief is what it's all about, as I mentioned when I began this missive. And until those beliefs change....

Yet there is a glimmer of hope, best put by H. L. Mencken: "Every time the scientists take another fort from the theologians and the politicians, there is genuine human progress."

Enough. Or too much.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sugar Beets Rule!

I scheduled the Annual Board meeting of Strunsky Sugarbeets Inc. in Paris this year, an act which enabled a neat weekend with the Comte DeRienville at his chateau near Versailles. All went well, and at the pool, my Cardin bikini was a hit. Still, the Compte was a wee bit distracted. His superiors had ordered that he develop some sort of ring fence around President Sarkozy, in order to shield him from the L'Oreal mess. That's a complicated affair, and not really worth the time of my treasured readers. That is, you.

I did enquire why Sarkozy couldn't do what his Italian counterpart would do in similar circumstances. I mean, Berlusconi would just enact a law making what was at issue legal, and presto, all solved! No flies on old Silvio.

"C'est non possible," the Compte sniffed. "Nous sommes... francais."

At which point I was going to shout "J'accuse!" but thought better of it. No point in engaging in a discussion that would intrude on, shall we say, other activities of a pleasurable nature. As the Irish adage goes, 'Many a man's tongue broke his nose.'

So off to the Paris Board meeting at the Georges Cinq. My Ukrainian manager Bohdan greeted me, and in the meeting room, I renewed acquaintance with the other representatives of the enterprise. Soon I was immersed in various and sundry items of a sugar beet nature.

I will not bore the reader in detailing all that occurred, but one or two things are worthy of mention. Beet sugar has moved from being 25% of the world's sugar to 30% -- a considerable gain. The East Anglia fuel project involving the production of biobutanol was coming along nicely, and German Zuckerruben-Sirup was becoming ever more popular. All in all, profits were up roughly 35%, no small feat in the current world economy. Thus I argued for, and got, healthy raises for the workers who actually tended the beets themselves.

No bonuses for the managers, though -- they receive handsome wages as well as stock options.

As the meeting broke up, Bohdan leaned over and said, "There's a military guy outside who wishes a word."

"Well, let's see what it's all about."

I left the room, and encountered two people. One was of Oriental persuasion, short in stature, and sporting a uniform festooned with various medals and medallions. The other was a slender female, also Oriental, poured into a leather mini-skirt and cashmere top and wearing what looked to be Louboutin stilettos.

"I am General Phan," the man said, ignoring the woman by his side. "My government would be interested in a sugar beet enterprise, a joint venture, if you will."

"And which government would that be?' I asked, although the penny was beginning to drop.

"Myanmar," he replied.

"I smiled sweetly at him. "You mean, of course, Burma. And I would be happy to begin a negotiation. When might I meet with Miss Aung San Suu Kyi?"

"She is not the government," he said tersely.

"Oh, but she is," I said. "Very definitely. Won the election handily, and has the support of most of the Burmese populace. Were it not for a vicious group of thugs headed up by that creep Than Shwe --"

He abruptly turned and left, dragging the hapless girl with him.

Well, you can't win them all. Particularly when the shit hits the Phan.

(Sorry about that).