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.