Friday, February 28, 2014

Vespas, Cryptography, Bitcoins, Patches, and Me

The title of this post is a string.

I was introduced to strings when I became interested in computers and programming, a long time ago.

Sentences are strings, but not all strings are sentences.

There's no need to worry, I'm not about to embark on an explanation of string theory.  That's in part because I can't wrap my mind around more than four dimensions.  Besides, it is, as they say, what it is.  I'm not that curious.  But the real reason that you don't need to worry about me launching into an impenetrable diatribe on cosmology is that the string in the title is not the same kind of string of which the universe may, or may not, be made of.

One parses this kind of string as a means of extracting the bits that are meaningful or relevant, depending on the context.  This one's easy for me to parse, and of course I am pleased to do it, so you will be pleased that very little effort will be expected of you.  Fear not, read on with abandon.

The string that serves as the title for this ScootCommute post is a string of fascination, ordered chronologically.

Vespas captured my imagination way back in the 1960's.  All I could do was imagine what it would feel like to own one.  To sit on the saddle, kick start it, rev the engine, ease out the clutch, and swoop off like a bird in flight, destination irrelevant.  It only took forty-six years for that dream to become my reality.

Many, many years after I dreamed of owning a Vespa (approximately twenty years later), I stumbled onto computers.

I was convinced at the time that computers would, in the near future, make me thoroughly irrelevant.

You see, law is as close to a pure information business as any that exist.  I knew a fair amount about law, and nothing about computers.  I was so certain that computers would doom my career, that I confronted them as one might confront a mortal enemy.  Square on.  I started learning about them.  Know thine enemy is good advice.  I learned more about computers than anyone else I knew.  I learned more about computers than any lawyer I've ever met.  I taught myself to program.  Computers became my friend and, in the fullness of time, actually helped to advance my career.

You may doubt the truth of these statements.  You may be forgiven for thinking that I am stretching some minor fiddling with technology into a tale of mythic proportions.

But consider this.  I found myself, many years later, in San Francisco, at the RSA Conference, which was then the most important gathering of computer scientists in the world, a conference attended by delegates from the world's most important technology companies.

I was there to give a talk, solo if you can believe it, in the main hall of the conference venue, high on Nob Hill, at the Fairmont Hotel, in the main ball room packed beyond its 450 seat capacity, with standing room along the walls filled to stifling capacity, and with more eager attendees in the lobby outside the room watching on remote monitors.  The topic I was addressing was how the existing economic and technology models promoted for public key cryptography infrastructures were fundamentally flawed, so much so that real world commercial deployment was unlikely to succeed on any meaningfully large scale.  The paper I presented was co-written with Andrew, a very dear friend and gifted mathematician.  Andrew sat with me on the podium as I delivered the paper.  The hour we were allotted was barely enough time.  The San Francisco performance was so successful that our paper became part of the curriculum at a number of very prominent  US computer science faculties for a good number of years thereafter.

That's what fascination means to me.

I've moved on since then.  Today my work revolves around corporate governance and securities law compliance.  It's less exciting, but it pays the bills.

Later still, Vespas became a reality for me.  It was a little over four years ago.  As the saying goes, I should have gotten into riding much earlier.  It is a source of very great pleasure.

I'm not one to do anything by half measures.  Before actually buying a Vespa I did my homework.

These days that means turning to the internet.

It didn't take long to find ModernVespa.  ModernVespa is to Vespa ownership, what the Silicon Valley RSA Conference was to computer science.  If Vespas could spawn a cult, then that cult is ModernVespa.  It is much more than a discussion forum.  Its members find ways to meet, many eventually attend the yearly Amerivespa rally in the US, and a good number participate in the Scooter CannonBall run, and hold memberships in the Iron Butt Association.

Like most societies, ModernVespa has its plebian class, and its nobility.  Members more often than not sport oval "MV" stickers on their helmets (guilty) and their bikes (also guilty).  The "MV" sticker is a black on white oval that evokes the country stickers that identify vehicles by the nationality of their registration. As with similar societies ModernVespa has its patches.  These are custom embroidered emblems suitable for sewing onto caps or jackets.  A little like the Hell's Angels, minus the loud pipes, hogs and drug trade.  Simply belonging to ModernVespa doesn't make it easy to find out that there are stickers and patches.  That knowledge can only be acquired by participating on the forum long enough to stumble upon references to them.  Even then, there is no link known to exist from the ModernVespa forum to the online merchandise store.  I don't even remember how I found it.  It is possible to Google it, as with most everything else these days.  So much for obscurity.

Once you find this semi-secret store, you see that there are patches readily available for the plebes, and then there are limited edition patches.  And just a handful of those have ever been made.  And they are all, yes all, prominently marked as being SOLD OUT. So you see, those patches are so exclusive, so rare, as to be virtually unobtainable at any price. No one who owns one will be likely to part with it.  There are just a few members of the forum who have a complete collection.  Like maybe three, tops, four people in the world.

OK.  So who gives a crap about Vespa forum swag?  Well, I do.  Even if you don't, you need to understand that the rarest of the rare, limited edition, ModernVespa patch, the "Italia" patch, is a very desirable thing indeed.  Factor in to this equation of fascination of mine, that I will be in Italy in May, will tour the Vespa museum (one of a kind in the world, naturally) in Pontedera, and then spend an entire day touring the Tuscan countryside and the vineyards of the Chianti region on a Vespa or Piaggio MP3 in the company of another ModernVespa member and her husband.  Having an Italia MV patch to commemorate that ride... well, to be honest,  it's way beyond priceless for me.

Fortunately, the world moves in mysterious ways.

Jess, the self-styled petty tyrant who rules ModernVespa, is the only man alive who has custody of all ModernVespa's secrets.  Jess is sitting on the few remaining Italia patches in existence that have yet to be sold.  A gifted computer scientist by trade, Jess is understandably fascinated by BitCoins.

Here is where fate causes my strings of fascination to intertwine.

There is no room here to delve into the murky realm of BitCoins.  Trust me when I say it's very, very murky, and extremely arcane.

My dear friend Andrew, the gifted mathematician, cryptographer, and co-author of our PKI paper, has been patiently teaching me about BitCoins for the past many months.  Suffice it to say that I also find BitCoins fascinating.  Not so much for the crypto-currency aspects of BitCoin that have been making headlines these past few months, but because the BitCoin algorithm is a brilliant model of open-source, distributed, non-hierarchical, cryptographically-based trust and authentication in open networks.  The BitCoin architecture could be leveraged to disseminate digital IDs in a way that has the potential to revolutionize the way we live, learn and communicate.  I still think that's potentially a very big deal.  So does Jess.

In an attempt to educate the ModernVespa community, and introduce us to the wonder of BitCoin, Jess announced that he planned to offer some of the few remaining rare limited edition patches in his possession, but only to ModernVespa members able to pay for them in BitCoin.  True to his word, he announced just a few days ago that among the small handful of patches available for purchase with BitCoins, were two remaining Italia patches.

The lure was more than I could resist.  It can take weeks to set up a BitCoin account.  I know this because Andrew has one and has explained what he had to go through to get it.  I knew that without expert help and guidance, I could never claim one of those treasures.

It occurred to me, as you can easily imagine, that Andrew might be willing to assist me in procuring one of the Italia patches.  I reasoned that if we worked in tandem, I could get a patch.  How fitting an exploit.  The chance to bring my crypto-knowledge to bear and procure an ultra-rare, much sought-after ModernVespa Italia patch.

The prospect of two of my parallel strings of fascination concatenating (it's sad, but concatenating strings is quite a lot of fun - don't believe me? Try it in Excel: =concatenate(A1, B2)) into a joyous real-world result was, to say the least, tantalizing.  The uber-geeky-ness of it was thrilling.  The pursuit of the arcane prize by arcane means: such a juicy Dan Brown-worthy adventure.

The stage was set.  Here I was in Florida on vacation.  Andrew was in London, Ontario, hard at work on software he was developing, and Jess was somewhere near Silicon Valley using the precious Italia patch to troll for BitCoins.  I explained the plot to Andrew, and how the deed could be done.  I would place an order with Jess for the Italia patch.  Assuming it hadn't been sold, Jess would provide a BitCoin payee crypto-string to me via a private message on the ModernVespa forum.  I would forward the BitCoin payee string to Andrew.  Andrew would send the BitCoin to Jess.  On receipt of the BitCoin, Jess would declare me the winning bidder, and the patch would be mine.

One of the two available Italia patches was claimed, then declared sold.  Then the second and last Italia patch was spoken for.  Damn! It was not to be after all.  But then, wait, the second buyer was unable to complete the purchase, the BitCoin transaction eluded him or her.  The sheer techno-difficulty was too great a barrier.  Indeed, Jess had only managed to complete two patches-for-BitCoin  transactions. The window of opportunity had cracked open for me.

With Andrew on board, I lost no time sending Jess a private message claiming the last remaining Italia patch.

I waited.  I checked the forum.  The last Italia patch sat there, unclaimed.  I hit the sack.

In the morning I checked my e-mail.  Nothing.  I checked the site.  Still unclaimed.  And then it happened.  A private message from Jess.  He acknowledged my claim.  I had twenty-four hours to deliver the BitCoin, and if I did, the coveted Italia patch would be mine.  I checked the forum.  There sat the Italia patch.  In bold next to the patch: 'Claimed' it said.

Now the clock was ticking.  I lost no time sending the BitCoin crypto-string to Andrew.  I texted him: 'Call me'.  For some reason ATT&T thought his cell number was out of service.  Go figure that when valuable seconds are ticking away, ripples in the technology matrix manifest themselves, threatening to quash our attempt to deliver the BitCoins and claim the prize.

My phone rang.  Andrew was already at the keyboard.  His BitCoin wallet was so securely stashed away, as to be inaccessible.  Damn!  But there might be a way.  He might be able to use one of the BitCoin exchanges.  I could hear his fingers dancing on the keyboard.  Yes, he thought there was a way, it was theoretically possible.  He could acquire the BitCoins through an online exchange and pay for them via an Interac bank transfer from his bank.  More feverish keystrokes, Andrew talking to himself or to no one in particular as he danced his way through the electronic commerce maze.  He was ready to check out, yes it was working...  then... slam!  His bank was not among those that allowed Interac transfers of funds to a BitCoin exchange.

"Who do you bank with?" Andrew asked.  I told him.  I trust Andrew with my life.  "You're in luck!" he said.  "Process the BitCoin transaction directly, you don't need me."  Really, was it possible?  All I had was my iPhone.  Could I do this with an iPhone, from a breakfast restaurant in Fort Lauderdale?  I hung up with Andrew and pressed on.  I hit a snag, a 10 digit number was wanted.  What the hell??  I called Andrew.  Miraculously ATT&T let the call through.  I was nervous.  Andrew said "You're doing this on your iPhone?" he said it with the kind of chuckle you might hear if you told someone you were going to eat a bowl of spaghetti with a spoon.  He patiently offered some guidance, I thanked him, and soldiered on.  One hurdle done.  Crypto-string passed, two hurdles cleared. Security question... good, done.  Account information... done as well.  Password... PIN... click, click, click, accept, continue... wait... wait... SUCCESS!!!

I sent a private message to Jess with a screen shot of the BitCoin transfer confirmation.  A few hours later I received a message from Jess.  The patch was mine.  Mine!  MINE!!!   I checked the ModernVespa forum.  The second Italia patch was marked: 'Sold' it said.

And so ends this merry little string of intertwined fascinations.

A very satisfactory ending.


RichardM said...

A very cool post! I have also been following the bit coin activities for a while but have chosen not to venture into the mining venture. I also believe that these crypto-currencies will be very big especially since they are not tied to any country (this is a big deal). All of the government bans are doing nothing more than fanning the flames.

I think I will need to read your paper some time. I have sent folks to the RSA conference but never went there on my own. After all, I had gone to the management side of the fence and left the fun stuff to others...

RichardM said...

BTW, congratulations on the getting the last patch. Of course, if he still has the file (or better yet the paper tape) to drive the embroidery machine, it would be simple to make more.

Dar said...

Wow! It almost like a spy thriller! Glad you got your patch, where are you sewing this most coveted patch onto?

len@RE-GLAZE-IT said...

Hi David,
Bloody brilliant mate!
Fastest post I've ever read!
Ahhh the suspense..... Has he got it , hasn't he got it...yes he's got it!

David Masse said...

Richard, in 1996-1997 the RSA conference was growing exponentially. There was a buzz at the conference. It was like a mini Haight-Ashbury hippie happening. Revolution was in the air. Magic was tangible everywhere. The internet was poised to change the world. It was an amazing experience.

Of course, much of that early promise has yet to be realized. We haven't really moved very far in terms of really exploiting open networks.

That's not say that there aren't cool innovative approaches to the authentication dilemma. I particularly like PayPal's use of out-of-band communication via penny-sized bank deposits standing for confirmation strings.

But imagine wearable computers linked to your DNA and authenticated in an open one-way trust web. The possibilities for good and ill are endless.

David Masse said...

Yes of course, that's true but though I don't know Jess, I know enough about him that it's unlikely that those limited edition patches will flood the MV market.

Even if they do, frankly it wouldn't in any way detract from the pleasure I got from this whole transaction. Heck, how many people can claim to have purchased anything with BTC?

David Masse said...

You know Dar, I don't know where that patch will end up. Some MVers put them in shadow boxes and hang them on the wall.

I'm currently thinking it will do on a black baseball cap, or on one or the other of my riding jackets.

Once I decide, you can rest assured I'll share it here.

David Masse said...

Len, you're too kind.

It was a lot of fun. Anxious fun to be sure. I felt like I was threading a needle of opportunity.

It's really nice when something like this, even if it's trivial, works out.

The suspense is half the fun.

Unknown said...


I was on the edge of my chair, wondering too. All I could think about was the value of the BTC. did he buy with November 2013 value, or the current value . makes a big difference

I woudn't put it on a cap which could be easily lost. Much better on a jacket or on the wall at home, possibly framed with security sensors in a locked room

A weekend photographer
Riding the Wet Coast

SonjaM said...

Hilarious story, David. Talk about building up suspension. As much effort as it took to obtain the desired patch I believe it should be sewn on the moto jacket that you will be wearing in Italy…

The City Mouse in the Country said...

Your going to have to teach me about bitcoins. I've done a little reading on them but your enthusiasm for them makes me realize there might be something to this after all.

VStar Lady said...

Congrats on your purchase David.

David Masse said...

Bob, you have to be a little nuts to 'invest' in BitCoins. The value has fluctuated wildly, and there are all kinds of stories of Bitcoins being lost, mainly to computer mishaps, or the bankruptcy of Mt. Gox (about which I know nothing).

I would never have ventured into these troubled waters if it weren't a) for the rare patch, b) it cost me no more than CDN$28, and c) I was in, and out of BitCoins in the space of a minute or so, at a fixed cost of 0.04 BTC.

As for the patch, I kind of agree with you, but... I don't tend to lose caps, but I have had some close calls. I definitely don't want it on the wall, at least not know.

When the time comes that I no longer wish to ride, I'll harvest all the patches and frame them then.

David Masse said...

Sonja, that's two jacket debates. 1) do I pack a jacket? I want to, but the logistics and lack of suitcase place may defeat my desire. 2) which jacket? The Corazzo 5.0 is a safer bet, weather-wise, but the BMW Airflow would take less place.

Decisions, decisions.

David Masse said...

Thanks Karen. It really was a fun little venture.

Now I have the nice anticipation while the package makes its way from California.

SonjaM said...

David, 1) should be out of question. Yes, please take a jacket. Despite of what you might have heard... roads in Italy aren't soft and plushy ;-). And which jacket? Well, if you were to ask me, I'd take the Corazzo (It does sound Italian enough to me). If you wear the jacket on the plane, it wouldn't take up space in your luggage. This is how I traveled with gear to New Zealand...

David Masse said...

Sonja, that's good advice and that's the way my mind was wandering. All I have to do is wear for a little while to board the plane, then again from the plane to the hotel in Venice. Then from the hotel in Venice until we pick the cars in Florence, and so on. I think that's what I'll do.

It's really helpful to hear that's what worked for you.

David Masse said...

Rob, there's definitely something to them. Their built-in digital design mimics precious metals. They are in permanently fixed number, so there's scarcity. They need to be 'mined', and the 'mining' becomes more and more difficult as more and more BitCoins are mined. Like gold, they are prone to loss, both with physical loss of the storage medium, and potentially through data corruption and the usual vices and risks to which all data are subject.

I think BitCoins are best left as a spectator sport. Inevitably, a few folks are going to become mega wealthy with BitCoins. Not me though.

Coop a.k.a. Coopdway said...

Wonderful David! I did read on, with anticipated abandon. My exposure to strings and 'extraction' happened back in my database days....there were all kinds of puzzles that I miss with what I'm doing now....

I knew a lot about Modern Vespa; far from enough about bitcoins, so thank you. And congratulations on your new possession!

David Masse said...

Thanks Coop!

I know enough about BitCoin to keep my stake well below CDN$30.00 (0.04 BTC).

Joe said...

Somebody who visited here and read this post of yours followed the link in the sidebar over to my "Scootin' Da Valley" and in my checking the "recent came from" stats I was led back to this post which I hadn't seen before.

A very belated congratulations on scoring the Italia patch!

What I learned about you in this post makes me feel truly honored that you visit my blog on occasion and drop a comment now and then.

And, there's good old BobSkoot up there in the comments, God rest his soul! It felt good to see his name and read his words as if he were with us, still writing. It makes the dreariness of this rainy day a bit less to bear.

I'm enjoying the beginning of your recent 29 day series at present, too, and looking forward to the rest of it!

David Masse said...

Thanks for visiting this post, Joe.

It's a little like time travel, don't you think? Like opening a crypt. It's like hearing Bob's voice, gone but not forgotten.

Thanks for the kind words.

The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.