Originally Published: Monday, 11 October 1999 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Obsession

Jake had lost himself sifting through source code, searching for another elusive bug, when Fred broke through the trance. When Fred wanted your attention, he usually got it one way or another. In this case, he jumped up onto the desk scattering printouts across the room....

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Jake had lost himself sifting through source code, searching for another elusive bug, when Fred broke through the trance. When Fred wanted your attention, he usually got it one way or another. In this case, he jumped up onto the desk scattering printouts across the room.

"What the...?"

Jake started, and there was Fred gazing up at him with those pitiful feline eyes. Damn, he had been so engrossed in the work that he'd forgotten to feed the cat again.

Jake made his way to the kitchen. He hoped he still had a bit of cat food left, it had been awhile since he'd been out to grab groceries. That was usually something Kate had taken care of. It wasn't until she had left that Jake truly appreciated how much she really did for him. Jake had never known a girl with so much patience, but apparently even Kate had her limits. The long hours at work and his recent obsession took quite a toll on their relationship.

So here Jake was, left with a haunting sense of regret, an empty apartment, and the cat. Jake rummaged through the cupboards, pulling out boxes of half-eaten cereal in a vain search for the cat food.

"It really figures," Jake thought.

Fred was underfoot rubbing against Jake's leg, his tail twitching in anticipation of a meal. Jake was absolutely not in the mood to take an excursion to the grocery store just for some cat chow. So he pulled out a can of tuna and dumped it into Fred's bowl.

"That should tide you over Freddie, now let me get back to work, would ya?"

Back to the computer. He slapped on some headphones, opened up an MP3 player and loaded his techno play list. Techno was Jake's preferred coding music. There was something in those beats. The code and the music fed on each other through Jake in some kind of recursive loop. It just worked.

Jake tried to regain his concentration but couldn't. He'd made the mistake of thinking about Kate again. The blue eyes and her beautiful blonde hair kept dancing through his mind. For some reason he could always hear her laugh. She'd had the most magnificent laugh. A little smile and a brief laugh from her would brighten even his darkest days.

The arguments they'd had cycled through Jake's mind in an endless repetition. It was futile but he analyzed it all. He couldn't help who he was.

He'd found nirvana a couple years back after stumbling onto the 'net. Here was something he'd always dreamed about. A place where ideas and information could be freely exchanged, where they would be judged on their own merit. Power was finally shifting back to the individual. Away from government. Away from corporations. Away from big media conglomerates. Jake intuitively knew that the Internet could be an agent of change even more powerful than the printing press.

It wasn't long after that the "dot com" craze began to take off. Instead of using the Internet as a tool to empower the individual, it was being used as not much more than a television for the computer. What would have been a sick joke just a few years earlier came to fruition. Serial numbers embedded in CPUs, new digital wiretap laws, and more. Day after day, Jake began to obsess over it. He felt powerless and helpless to stave off the degradation of his wonder world.

Soon governments around the world began to take note as well. Censorship began to rear its ugly head. Government began to restrict and monitor the flow of information that had so intrigued Jake. The dream was beginning to die.

Jake had to do something. It was then he started reading through every book he could find on encryption and stenography. Codes and information hiding. Usually these were tools of obscure three-letter government agencies, but perhaps they could be used to give back some of the freedoms being slowly taken away. Kate looked on with a patient and loving eye. She seemed a bit baffled by it all, but didn't say much.

Jake struggled a bit with some of the mathematics, but he was driven to understand. He'd found his mission. Jake was determined to implement a system in which his dream could be recognized in spite of recent intrusions. He would put together software that would insure freedom to communicate, and pass information with no possibility of eavesdropping. Anonymity, when desired, could be ensured, and the ultimate safeguard was a stenography module which could hide it all in plain sight. Jake felt this was especially important for countries where Internet use was heavily monitored for anti-government communications.

This wasn't exactly an easy task to accomplish, especially with laws forbidding exportation of encryption software. It didn't take long to figure out the best way of going about it all was to form an open source project with coders around the globe. The encryption could be developed in countries without such laws and later imported into the United States. The peer review was also an essential part in making sure the software was secure.

Jake spent every moment available reading books, sending e-mails, and hacking on code. The rest of life just seemed to fade away. The calling was there and Jake wasn't about to turn away from it. He didn't even realize there was a problem with his relationship until it was much too late. The only thing that mattered at the time was his project.

After she'd left, he threw himself even deeper into it all. Computers and code was all he had to keep away the crushing loss he felt inside. In the back of his mind he wondered what he would do if he ever did complete the code.

Throughout the rest of the evening Jake hacked out more pieces of the puzzle. Yet again, he found himself interrupted. This time it wasn't the feline -- it was the phone.

"Hello?"

"Jake, its me, Kate. I've been thinking... maybe we can start over. A clean slate so to speak."

His heart began to race in a way he'd long forgotten. Just hearing her voice did strange things to him. Perhaps there was hope yet!

"Are you busy? Maybe we can meet tonight over a cup of coffee or something," she said.

"You know I'd love to Kate, I am almost done here for tonight. I just have a couple more lines of code to debug and audit."

Click. The phone was disconnected. For several moments Jake looked around in a bit of confusion. She'd hung up on him. Obviously that was the wrong response to her suggestion.

He shuffled back to the computer and began to work again. He couldn't change who he was, nor could he give up on his dream. Not even for Kate.

Matt Michie is a student of Computer Science in New Mexico, USA. He maintains a small Web site at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.




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