The Science of Secrets
Making and Breaking Codes
Lies at the Speed of Light
Craig Shergold is a 7 year old boy living in England who has terminal brain cancer and is expected to live for just a few more months. His dying wish is to be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the recipient of the most business cards. To make his last with come true, please send him a card.
The above story is almost true, it happened in 1987. Craig’s wish was reported in a newspaper, and he received several million cards and made it to the record book. Since then Guinness Book has discontinued that category. An American Philanthropist donated a lot of money and Craig had advanced brain surgery and he is alive and well (and 21) today. Neither Craig, nor the story died, the story kept being revived year after year, and the cards kept coming and coming—estimated at about 250,000,000 by today. Please do not send cards, this is a hoax. Actually, the above story is called an Urban Legend.
Craig’s story is one of thousands of urban legends in circulation. Urban legends are stories founded in some truth, but largely false. They appear mysteriously, spread spontaneously, have elements of humor and horror and sometimes intense emotion. The well-known ones have very good story lines and are very well written (or told). Urban legends are as old as human civilization, they are often so well known that people mistake them for real facts.
The best thing (or is it the worst thing?) that happened to the spreading of urban legends is of course, Email. Now they are spread faster and wider and believed better than ever before. No longer does the spreading of these lies have to depend on whispers from human to human; the spreading happens at the speed of digital bits over wires.
Urban legends are everywhere. For example: (1) There is the well-worn story about the guy who went to the hospital for a minor operation and then found his kidneys had been removed (and sold). (2) A woman who died a horrific death after drinking a Coca Cola. The death was caused by dried rat urine on the rim of the can; from the rats in the warehouse it was stored. (3) A family traveling around France accidentally left a running camcorder in the hotel room. When they came back, they played the tape and found a video of the maid, using all their toothbrushes to clean various unmentionable parts of her body. (4) A man got a phone call on his cell phone while he was at the petrol pump. When he answered the call, the pump exploded.
All of the above are false. There are more—alligators live in New York sewers, smoking menthol cigarettes leads to impotency, people only use 10% of their brain (the rest of it, is for future growth), toilets swirl the wrong way in the Southern Hemisphere, hair grows thicker if shaved, cannibalism was common in the past, low temperatures causes sniffles, reading in dim light causes shortsightedness, and so on. There are millions such “facts” that are plain false.
The stories and so-called facts are very plausible, presented very eloquently and convincingly, but they are simply not true. A compendium of recent urban legends is maintained at www.urbanlegends.com (this site has thousands of such stories). Email and the web have been the best things that happened to urban legends since the invention of fire.
Remember the chain letter—or in these days, the chain Email? A letter arrives with a list of five names, and a story of how the letter has made trips around the world. If you break the chain, you could be in a lot of trouble. On the other hand, if you are good, and you just send a “coin” (or a currency note, or a card, or a wish) to the first person on the list and send the letter to 5 people, you will receive 15,625 coins in a matter of weeks. Well, if you originate one of those, you reach 5 people (level 1), who (may) send it out to 25 people (level 2) who send it out to 625 people (level 3). For any of those 625 people to get coins, the letter must reach level 8, which involves 9,700,000 people. Of course, that is not going to happen. In fact, theoretically, if the letter reaches level 14, it must reach 6,000,000,000 people – which is higher than the population of the world.
The chain Email has replaced the chain letter. Innovations in chain Email include the wonderful Microsoft hoax. This is a letter, which says that if you forward it to your friends, Microsoft, using its great technology will find out about it, and will send you money (about $100 or so). Supposedly, it is small change for Microsoft (very rich) and they are doing it for publicity. Of course, it is false. Microsoft had to spend a lot of time and effort convincing people that this was just a horribly successful prank. Similar hoaxes have been launched on Nokia, which would give you free cell phones for forwarding a message. The Nokia hoax was so successful that the next one was supposedly from Erricson whose hoax letter said “Our competitor Nokia is giving away free phones, so we are going to give away our latest phone, for free…”
The Email pranksters never die. The keep multiplying, with stupid tricks such as virus hoaxes. The best-known virus hoax is the email about the Good Times virus. The email warned that a very sinister virus was being sent by Email, and the virus carrying email had the phrase “Good Times” as its subject line. If you even attempted to read this email it would wipe out everything on your hard disk and render your computer unusable. So to protect yourself and your loved ones, you are to send out the warning, by email, to all those you know. And of course, if you saw the Good Times virus come to you, you better not even think about reading the message—get out of the room and use a long broom handle to move and click the mouse to delete the Email. (Last sentence is my exaggeration). People took the warning quite seriously (it was very well written, and very plausible) and did exactly what they were told “Forward it to all of your friends”. The mass scale forwarding, clogged up Email systems and spread unnecessary panic.
Beyond urban legends and hoaxes and other fascinating lies, is the truth. If it was not for Email and mailing lists and the web, very few people would know about the Darwin Awards. Darwin Awards are the perfect example of truth being stranger than fiction.
The Darwin Awards “commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives: by eliminating themselves”. In other words, they contribute to the superiority of the human gene, by removing themselves (and hence their bad genes) from the planet, never to reproduce again.
Just for example, the 1995 award winner stole a solid fuel rocket engine from the military and tied it to his car. He took the car to a deserted highway in Arizona and started up the jet engine. After the car reached 250 miles/hour, it got airborne and then later, the wreckage was found 125 feet high, impaled on a cliff, with a crater 3 feet into the rock. In 1997, a bicyclist crossed an airport runway in Brazil, and was hit and killed by a plane—he did not hear the plane landing as he was listening to his walkman. In 1998, the winner, a man in Argentina, after a fight with his wife, threw her out of the 8th floor balcony. She fell, but got stuck in some power lines. He then jumped to rescue her and missed the power lines and fell to his death.
If it was not for Email and the web, most of us would have never heard the story of Lawnchair Larry. Larry’s story is one of the best feats in the Darwin collection. Larry did not die, so just got a “honorable mention” not the full Darwin Award. Larry always wanted to fly, he even joined the Air Force, but he could not pass the pilot tests due to poor eyesight. Retired and dejected, Larry got a not so bright idea. He acquired an old, big sturdy lawn chair and 40 weather balloons. He tied the lawn chair to his car, tied the balloons to the lawnchair and filled them with helium. The test worked fine, the lawnchair floated up and was held steady by the balloons. Larry wanted to sit in the chair and float over his neighborhood at a height of about 50 feet, and wave to his neighbors, and gaze at the suburbs of Los Angeles, where he lived.
He took a few bottles of beer to keep him company, and a pellet gun to shoot out the balloons when he wanted to descend. He then climbed onto the floating lawnchair, sat down, and cut the tether to the car. The chair shot up, up past the planned 50 feet, and up, up away. When the chair stopped climbing, it leveled off at about 10,000 feet. At that height the air is very cold, which spoilt his appetite for beer. He wanted to descend, but was much to scared of falling, to shoot at the balloons.
At 10,000 feet over the inland suburbs of Los Angeles, he met a gentle (but cold) breeze that slowly took him towards the ocean. Between the valley where the suburbs of LA exist, and the beaches of LA, there is a huge, world famous, structure. This thing is large enough and important enough that it even owns all the skies over coastal Los Angeles. If you have not guessed it yet, it is called “Los Angeles International Airport” or LAX. (Fourth busiest airport in the world, 1047 touchdowns a day).
Barreling down on the final approach to touchdown at LAX, a Delta Airlines jet passed close to Larry. The pilot radioed the control tower. “There is a male in a lawnchair, at 10,000 feet. He looks harmless, but he has beer and a GUN”.
The air traffic controller got on the phone to arrange for a emergency landing of the Delta jet, with hundreds of live passengers and a completely lunatic pilot. The pilot was to be immediately transported to psychological counseling and brought up on charges of irresponsible endangerment.
About 30 seconds behind the Delta plane, a United Airlines monster breezed passed Larry and called in the same report. The air traffic controller hung up on his plans of goosing the Delta pilot and called the Coast Guard. To cut a long story short, the Coast Guard using helicopters rescued Larry (it is very difficult to place a helicopter on top of a lawnchair held up by balloons, the downdraft blows the balloons off). Larry, upon returning to sea level, was led away in handcuffs on charges of entering protected airspace without permission. A TV reporter yelled at him “Why did you do that?”. All Larry could say was “A man cannot just sit around”.
Groundhog Update: On February 2nd, Phil, a groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania predicted six more weeks of frigid and snowy winter (for the Northeastern United States). I reported this prediction, in my column, on February 19th. As of this writing, Phil has been right. It has been cold and snowy over there. Starting March 5th the area has been hit by yet another major snowstorm. The weather predictors using their modern supercomputers and crystal balls predicted this storm, and vehemently pronounced (as of March 4th) that this would be the severest winter storm to hit NE USA in over 50 years. The “Mother of all Storms”, to misquote a modern day sage, Saddam Hussein. The score: Groundhog 1, weather predictors 0. The storm did come, but the fury was a bit above average.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking.