Postcard from Lille, Part 12

Days of Infamy

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
WTC 28.02.1991

I had an uncle who was an excellent chap from a very proud, hardworking but rather modest background. He’s the one who was on the railway (a reserved profession) during the war but managed to get bombed by Adolf anyway while firing a munitions train through Rugby. After the war he went into the building trade and then became a civil servant, as a stone mason with the Ministry of Works.

This was decades before the invention if the internet , and even before widespread use of the telephone. One of his most treasured possessions, which I still have to this day, in a box in the attic, and which will be passed down through the generations like a Rembrandt, is a telegram.

Incidentally, I was in the attic the other day and found an old oil painting and an old violin. Well, I dashed off to the auction house to get them valued and a very impressive man who would have pushed David Dickinson into second place in a David Dickinson lookalike competition, told me that I had a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius, but, unfortunately, Rembrandt’s violins are tuneless and Stradivarius’s paintings, valueless daubs. Apologies to Tommy Cooper.

Meanwhile everybody of my uncle’s generation says they can remember exactly where they were the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, and my uncle has documentary proof of such, brought down cobbled streets by a boy on a bicycle. He was on the roof of our local castle having been instructed, via telegram, to lower the Union Jack to half mast.

Move forward a generation or two and a similar moment would be Tuesday September the eleventh two thousand and one. With that glorious thing called hindsight my days of international mystery, adventure and derring do, (mildly exaggerated and lightly embellished in the telling) were pretty much over and I was engaged on the technical side of things, sat in an office, staring at a computer screen, fighting with the technology, which I must confess, I thoroughly enjoyed. We established previously that there are very clever chaps in Intelligence Branch, who understand all these things, and then there are the rather dim in Executive Branch, who just keeping hitting something with a hammer until it starts to work. As they say in France, “It works in practice, but I’m afraid it wont work in theory”.

Towards the end of the 1990’s the advances in technology and widespread adoption of the internet provided all manner of opportunities and threats. On the computer side of things one or two significant issues landed on my desk. I shall attempt to explain but bear in mind, dear reader, that I am no mathematician, and more of an artisan than an artist.

Let’s play a little game. Think of three random numbers. Done that? I bet you haven’t. If you have then I doff my hat to you. A very large proportion of people will have thought of three positive whole numbers in some kind of sequence, probably running low to high. If I ask you to do it again then a large proportion of you will now deliberately chose some decimals, fractions and negative numbers. Again this is not completely random but predictable based upon your reaction to my previous observation. People aren’t good at ‘random’, and neither are computers.

A good example, often used, was the German chap, of a Wehrmacht inclination, who switched his Enigma machine on, made a cup of coffee then typed in ‘hello world, Heil Hitler’, at exactly the same time of the day, every day for years. Thereby sending the same message, at the same time, with the machine having being active for the same amount of time, with different cylinder settings, from a different page on the code pad, over and over again. Therefore making life much easier for our code breakers.

Incidentally, you do realise that when we broke the enigma codes we didn’t tell anybody and for years after the war sold enigma machines to friend and foe alike and therefor had access to all their encrypted messages? Bear that in mind when you’re using the very latest fool proof secure communications.

The earliest computers that I worked with didn’t have a random number generator at all but rather a long list of previously embedded numbers. When ‘random’ was called it would take the next number off the list. But this wasn’t very random and doing the same thing with the computer meant that the same sequence of numbers would be chosen. ‘Randomise’ would start the list off at a ‘random’ point but we cant do random so it was based on the time the computer had been switched on, via a coded timer. Two important buts. If the computer is switched on and always immediately begins to use the same code, then the timer will always be at the same time when ‘randomise’ is called.

A second big ‘but’ is that timers weren’t accurate and the timers embedded in the code had longer and shorter seconds. Not by very much but enough to kibosh some of what we were trying to do. Unbelievably boring? Not really, very absorbing and great fun, and better than being shot at in the tropics.

Your author is a very shy, modest old fool, forced to write a memoir by provenance, a changing world and failing memory. He doesn’t like to boast, but muggins thought of a very clever way to solve the timer problem and, being a self employed sole trading contracting kind of chap, at one point was (more or less) getting paid a royalty every time you switched your computer on.

From a warm conservatory on a chilly spring morning, over looking a retired Detective Chief Superintendent’s sized garden, I thank and salute you. And hope that, to paraphrase a good story much better told by the late Sir Harry Seacombe, there hasn’t been a mistake and that the next phone call is the one asking for it all back.

This all came to an end during an earth shattering, horrendous, unforgettable day of pure evil that will go down in infamy. Yes, tragically, Microsoft thought of a way of doing it too and included it in a free Windows upgrade. Booooo. A few years earlier on another day of infamy the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were destroyed and my generation can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time.

I was on the phone to a colleague discussing bits of computing from where the conversation drifted onto bits of old railway line as my colleague was a bit of a train buff and so am I. If you’ve heard tales of long forgotten Austro-Hungarian carriage builders maker’s plates being lightly pilfered and plied across the Iron Curtain in diplomatic bags then I couldn’t possibly comment. Just as we were finishing the conversation he threw this line at me,

‘Have you seen the news today?’

It being late morning, I had to confess that I hadn’t. Well, off he went, Pentagon in flames, aircraft being used as atom bombs, World War three. Well what was I supposed to say?

‘What’s the world coming to, eh? Dear God’.

I thanked him for his call and got back to work but a little something was nagging at the back of my mind so found a TV, switched it on, and watched slack jawed.

The actual newsfeed was coming live from America with a British commentary. There was an American ‘ticker tape’ running across the bottom of the screen and occasionally a secondary window would open showing a different image. But as the secondary image appeared, the American feed would be cut and vision returned to the studio in London. This happened a few times. I knelt down close to the TV and pressed my nose against the screen. Sure enough every time a particular image appeared British TV was censoring it. That image was of Osama Bin Laden. Now Bin Laden’s connections to the British establishment were too sensitive then, and even now, to be well publicised, but may I indulge myself to you my own pang of recognition?

Previously I’ve mentioned that my last ever day in the United States was on February 28th 1991, the last day of the first Gulf War. What I didn’t mention was that I was at the World Trade Centre signing off some recently completed derring do. It was a glorious and perfect day and everything fitted together just right. There was time to visit the Sky Level at the top of one of the towers and admire a breath taking view from horizon to horizon on a crisp, cloudless February afternoon.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
WTC View From The Top

Then take the elevator down to underground level for the Subway to Grand Central for the Carey bus to JFK. That’s the time I could have gone on Concorde but declined as it would have meant a night in London and a trip further north the next day. Acquaintances had been instructed to cover my accommodations in yellow ribbons (which they didn’t).

The New York papers were full of the end off Gulf War One, or more accurately, the Iraqis agreeing terms to a cessation of hostilities. The newspapers had giant V’s for victory on the front pages as Sadam was expected to be overthrown in an uprising and democracy, the rule of Western style law and free markets were expected to spread across the Middle East like falling dominies. A bit like Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. How wrong we were.

Away from the East and West coasts in what metropolitan elitists would now call ‘Fly over America’ there was a different and telling sentiment that I heard expressed on more than one occasion. Sadam Hussein wore a collar and tie, had short hair, shaved every day and certainly wasn’t a liberal.

‘What we bombing him for when we could be bombing the communists in Washington?’

Quite.

So much for my recollection of the World Trade Centre. At least I can’t bore you with a personal connection of Osama Bin Laden. Oh, hold on a minute.

To be continued….

© Always Worth Saying 2019
 

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