19 August 2013

Swiss Secrets

Sometimes you can have a chance encounter with someone who changes your life. In the blink of an eye. The most ordinary of days can be catapulted into an extraordinary and unexpected moment. Something that alters the course of your destiny. Something that changes things forever.

Tragically I have yet to have such an encounter and I doubt that I ever will - but I live in hope. I will however continue to expect the unexpected - albeit with little expectations.

Oscar Wilde is often credited with coining the term 'expect the unexpected' in his work "An Ideal Husband". He wrote:

"To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect".

The term was actually penned some two and a half thousand years earlier though by the Roman Philosopher Heraclitus who wrote:

"If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it - for it is hard to be sought out, and difficult"

I met another Swiss genius this afternoon. I say another because I have met one before. I met this new one at the Spinelli coffee shop here in Singapore and I met the other one at Starbucks. The one in Starbucks is a Particle Physicist and this Spinelli one is a mathematician. He has a Doctorate in Applied Mathematics.

The Swiss genius in Spinellis was sitting at the table adjacent to me. We both had fruit and yoghurt and cups of coffee. This was somewhat uncanny but it was not extraordinary. It was certainly not life changing for either of us. The fruit and yoghurt was the ice-breaker that commences our conversation and the conversation was initiated by me. They usually are. We chatted while we ate. The Swiss guy's name was Richard. I would have preferred his name to be Hans or Siegfried or something a little more Germanic but Richard it was.

Switzerland is a mountainous country that is bordered by France, Italy and Germany. I associate it with yodeling, chocolates, watches, Roger Federer, the Hadron Particle Collider and cheese with holes in it.

There are four official languages in Switzerland. They are French, Italian, German and Romansh. despite it being an official language Romansh is not recognized by my spellcheck. I have had to manually add it to my online dictionary to prevent red underscoring appearing beneath the text. 

Red underscoring really pisses me off.

Romansh is the least spoken language in Switzerland. It is actually only spoken or understood by less than one percent of the Swiss population. The Romansh speakers mostly live in the Swiss canton of Graubünden and the Romansh language was only recognized as being an 'official' Swiss language in 1996. The Romansh speakers of Switzerland petitioned long and hard for its recognition. What this basically means is that the Romansh speakers of Switzerland are able to write to the Swiss government in their language and the government are compelled to write back in the same dialect.

This is strange but I like it a lot.

Romansh has weird and wonderful origins that date back to Roman times. It descends from something called 'vulgar Latin'. 'Vulgar' refers to common Latin - or Latin in the spoken form. This is quite different to Latin in the written form. The written word is more commonly known as "classic' Latin.  Even though we tend to associate the word 'vulgar' as being something disgusting this is not at all the case in the context of vulgar Latin.

I also like this a lot.

I asked Richard what languages he spoke and he told me that he is fluent in German, French and English and he can speak a little Italian as well. I enquired as to whether he could speak Romansh and he told me that he could not. I told him that I thought that this was a bit of a pity as I was fluent in Romansh and I missed speaking it. I have no idea why I said this as it is quite a blatant lie. I speak no Romansh whatsoever. Not a single word.

I sometime spontaneously fib to strangers for no apparent reason. It is one of my many peculiar and inexplicable character flaws. I may need to seek some psychological assistance with this sometime in the future but for the moment I am content to live with it.

It simply is what it is.

Richard the Swiss genius who speaks no Romansh does some sort of IT secret squirrel stuff for Google. He told me that he mostly writes algorithms. I told him that I thought that this was fascinating and this was not a fib. I do find it fascinating.

The word fib is a good one. It first arose in the early part of the seventeenth century as an abbreviation of the term 'fibble-fable". To fibble-fable was to speak nonsense. I suspect that I fibble-fable quite a bit and as I have already confessed I am also an occasional spontaneous fibber.

Richard told me that he writes computer code that makes software work. He told me that the code that he and other programmers write are a series of complex and intertwined equations. They write lots and lots of numbers.  Richard told me that despite the multiplicity of the algorithms that programmers such as he writes, the term they use is 'code". It is never 'codes'. I told Richard that I thought that this lack of plurality was strange and he gave me a look that suggested that he thought that I was strange. I didn't mind.

We moved on.

The few genius types of super geeks that I have met before I have found to be initially quite shy and reticent when I start speaking to them. Many people are actually. Both of the Swiss prodigy that I have met took a while to warm up in our conversations however once they start to talk about their work they really get going. They like to be asked to explain things.

Richard was like this.

Richard told me that he now lived in Washington but he has lived in Singapore before. He told me that he has also lived and worked in Japan - in the city of Okinawa. Richard informed me that when he lived in Japan he was doing consulting for the US Government. Okinawa is home to a very large US military base. I have been there before. When I asked Richard what algorithms he was writing for the US Government and whether they had any military applications he told me that he couldn't tell me. Which of course implied that they did and it only wanted me to know all the more. I pressed him a little on the matter but he wouldn't budge.

I asked Richard over our second cup of coffee whether he thought that the recent allegations against the US National Security Agency were true. I asked him if the US Government were in fact recording every keystroke on every computer and every text messages that was sent and received in America. Richard told me that it was true. He said that the NSA had the ability and the supercomputers to do this - and they had likely been doing it for quite some time. He suggested that many governments were doing this in fact. Singapore included.

Richard told me that he thought that GPS signaling and electronic financial transactions were also being tracked and recorded. He told me that the NSA had recently built a massive data collection and processing centre in the state of Utah in the US where tens of thousands of technicians were employed. All of them were tracking emails and text messages. Billions of them. Every day.

When I asked Richard how he knew all this he told me that he couldn't tell me. He told me that he was bound by secrecy. Which of course only made me want to know all the more.

I asked Richard if he minded me calling him Dick and he told me that he did. He told me that he preferred Richard.

So I said, "Listen Dick, you can't tell me that you are doing all this secret stuff without telling me what the secrets are?
"I have taken an oath"
"I won't tell anyone else I promise" I replied.

This was actually another fib. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am hopeless with secrets. I love them and share them and get into all sorts of trouble. Tell me secrets at your peril.

I don't give a fuck.

"Give me one little secret Dick" I implored.
"I will give you one of mine in return" I added.

"You hef secrets?" Richard asked.

"Vat secrets do you hef?"
"One's that can bring down governments" I lied.

"You hef taken oaths not to speak dees secrets?"
"I have taken many oaths Dick"
"Unt you vud break dees oaths?"
"I would break these oaths in a trade off of secrets Dick. We will be bound by the secrets that we share"
The eyes of the Swiss genius glazed over a bit and I could see the dude doing some deep contemplation about the offer I had made. His nostrils flared a little and his left eye twitched. He began drumming the fingers of his right hand on the table. I opted not to push the matter and see what transpired. I took a couple of sips on my double shot vanilla latte while I waited and I lit up a cigarette.

"You cannot be smoking here eet is against the law" Richard said nervously.

"Don't worry Dick - I have government connections that allow me to smoke wherever I please" I replied.

This was another lie. I have no such dispensation.

"Now give me a secret please"
"Nein I cannot"
"Alright how about I ask you some questions and you give me some yes or no responses then?"
Richard shrugged in a non committal fashion.

"Is it true Richard that Google share their databases with the American government and they collect data on everyone?"
"I cannot say"
"I will take that as a yes then"

Richard looked mildly panicked.

"Is it true that if I sent an email to my friend Berty who lives in Nevada with words and phrases like 'bomb' and 'Jihad' and ‘Obama is a motherfucker who I will set on fire’ - then both he and I would instantly come to the attention of the CIA?"
"I cannot say"

"I will take that as a yes too then"

The Swiss genius looked further panicked.

"Is it true Richard that you are actually here in Singapore developing some uber weapons technology for the Singaporean government?"

 I asked this in quite an accusatory fashion and I may well have cocked an eyebrow when I spoke.

"Dees is not true at all" he sputtered. 

The face of the genius turned bright red when he said this and I suspect that I might have struck a chord. I was on a bit of a roll now and was having a thoroughly good time.

"I am afraid that I am going to have to take that as a yes as well Richard"

"Don't worry my friend" I added.

"Your secret is safe with me"

I picked up my Blackberry from the table and quickly snapped his picture. Like my fibbing this was a completely spontaneous action on my behalf. The non Romanshy speaking Swiss genius leapt to his feet then and he scurried away. He looked over his shoulder as he fled and I could see the alarm in his face as he disappeared into the distance.

I was a little disappointed that I had not extracted a secret from the Swiss genius but I felt a somewhat perverse sense of pleasure that I had panicked a man who may very well be complicit in the invasion of our privacy and personal liberties and who is quite possibly assisting in the development of weapons of mass destruction.

I am sorry Berty but I will not be able to visit you for a while. The FBI and the CIA and the NSA will likely be monitoring your movements in Nevada and I am fearful that they may try and grab me if I attempt to enter the country. 

I have erred greatly in writing jihad and bomb and setting Obama on fire in the one sentence. 


I just did it again.

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