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Beware the Ides of March

Updated on November 27, 2017
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I have been teaching mathematics in an Australian High School since 1982, and I am a contributing author to many mathematics text books.


I was seated facing the class, animating arms and legs not unlike a talking version of Marcel Marceau.

"I'm driving to school," I said, making "vroom vroom" sounds that were better suited for a kindergarten playgroup. "Ahead of me are traffic lights that stay green for thirty seconds and show red for sixty seconds." I avoided an imaginary collision by thrusting my leg forward in fair imitation of a driver braking and screeching to a halt.

"Did you crash, sir?" Janice enquired in an effort to appease me.

"Missed it by that much!" I replied, mimicking Maxwell Smart's catchphrase.

Janice turned to Julia and remarked, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Ignoring Janice's idiom, I asked, "What is the probability that I have to stop?"

"Please do stop," Stavros advised, giving the thumbs down to my histrionics.

"The probability is two thirds," Lino proposed, "because the lights are red for sixty of the ninety seconds, and sixty over ninety is two thirds."

Yao raised her hand to disagree. "I think it's one half because at any given time the light is going to be either red or green," she correctly concluded.

"Can we go on a field trip?" Jimmy asked excitedly. "We learn more that way."

The truism that excursions are synonymous with self flagellation is a tenet in the teaching profession, but I agreed to Jimmy's request.

"When is it?" the Principal wanted to know.

"The Ides Of March," I replied, "I'm taking my group to the research and development section of Protosoft. And I'll try to stay out of trouble," I added quickly.

"Your career is ephemeral. Even if something goes wrong, it won't matter," he retorted with a trace of a smile.

"Et tu, Brute? You're a real Job's comforter," I complained.

The bus trip on the morning of March 15 was uneventful except for the singing that inexplicably irked the bus driver. Exasperated, he finally turned his head whilst driving and not too kindly said, "Sir, please stop singing! Can't you behave like your students?"

Upon our arrival we were welcomed by Bill Stranks, Protosoft's Chief Executive Officer, who ushered us through tight security and along an air-conditioned passageway. On either side were glass panelled rooms inside which Bill Gates clones gazed at whiteboards smeared with indecipherable mathematical calculations, vulgar fractions, circuit diagrams and other questionable symbols that are best hidden from polite society.

"We are deep into Combinatorics, Network Decision Making and Conditional Probability," Mr Stranks informed us as we walked. "We have developed a level of data security not thought possible, therefore we take security precautions very seriously here."

"Do you mean you've found better encryption methods?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied with admiration as we entered a large area filled with technological paraphernalia. "Our algorithm will be a hacker's worst nightmare. Up to a googolplex of operations will be required from them to be successful; an impossible hurdle to overcome."

"These are working prototypes," he continued, waving his hands expansively, "please feel free to test them."

Like children opening presents on Christmas morning, everyone except for Jimmy was playing with mechanical robots and with machines sporting strange protuberances and appendages. Jimmy was uncharacteristically keeping to himself. I was attracted by a music synthesiser that creates sounds using random numbers but I abandoned the device after my students commented that my compositions were nothing short of caterwaul.

Jimmy edged close to a door emblazoned with the warning, STRICTLY NO ADMITTANCE.

"You can't go in there," Mr Stranks warned with authority, but after reflecting for a moment he unlocked the door, entered the room and reappeared pushing a trolley. On the trolley rested a monitor, a keyboard and apparatus resembling the innards of a computer.

"This is a working model of Protosoft's algorithm," he revealed proudly. "It simulates the efforts of a hacker who must enter sixty-four characters in the correct order to break the code."

We were all listening attentively. "It's been running non-stop for 5 years, trying random combinations and decryption methods. So far it has not found the correct sequence, and it won't."

"What is the correct code?" Helga asked.

"We don't want to know. A computer generated a random sequence which is kept in the safe."

"Can we try?" a few students eagerly asked.

"Why not?" was the smug reply. "It's impossible to crack."

And it appeared to be so. As each student confidently entered a combination of characters, the computer announced failure by the message, "No way, pal!" and a snippet of Perry Como's song, It's Impossible.

At first, Mr Stranks sardonically called out, "Sorry" or "Bad luck", but eventually ennui set in and he lapsed into complacency, staring at nothing.

He did not notice that it was Jimmy's turn. Jimmy's fingers moved at lightning speed across the keyboard and when he finished there was deafening silence.

"What happened?" I finally asked. As if awakened from a trance, Mr Stranks falteringly replied with,

"It must be a computer malfunction."

He checked connections, reset the system and randomly entered sixty-four characters. His reward? "No way, pal!" and "It's impossible...."

"Please," he motioned to Jimmy, "can you try again?"

Jimmy was eager to oblige. His fingers again expertly worked the keyboard and for the second time the result was a blank screen and no hint of Perry.

We left soon afterward, leaving a bewildered CEO in the middle of his soliloquy, repeating the dirge, "Not possible, oh, not possible, oh."

Did Jimmy change the course of History? Or at least, did he slow it to a walking pace? I think not. In fact, I am certain of it. The following day I found a note on my desk.

"Dear Sir, I hope I didn't do anything wrong yesterday. When we were supposed to be playing with the electronic stuff I saw a room with its door wide open and I noticed there was an open safe near the door.

After all the things Mr Stranks was saying about security, I went to close it, but I took a quick look inside. All there was inside was a piece of paper with

A3&e@#0GeT8*U+%N h12O$OPU 9^#G5WQ2 65M )Y(10975Ha6349Dg63/T

written on it. The letters and numbers stuck in my brain. I shut the safe and came back, and then when I was asked to try the machine I remembered.

Honest, sir, I didn't touch or see anything else. Please tell Mr Stranks I'm really sorry, but he should not leave doors and safes unlocked."

I laughed and was on the verge of calling Bill "Security" Stranks to let him know all is well. But wait! First I must ask Jimmy to tell me how he memorised so much in so short a time.


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