Chapter 18 The Day Willie Nelson Came To Town.
It would be the first time I’d ever flown so far and the thought of it kept my anxiety levels at critical for weeks, even though I’d be flying first class both ways. It wasn’t just the distance or the fear of all that pain that would almost certainly come with a descent from a great height. It was more about the thought that I’d be cramped in this luxury with complete strangers, for hours and hours, and no escape other than the bathroom. Even the thought of it had me struggling for breath, so naturally I kept thinking about it.
The last time I’d flown anywhere was now more than a decade ago, that early cold March morning when I landed in Paris as a seventeen-year-old runaway. And the pain in my head as we descended was so excruciating I passed out for a few seconds before we landed, much to the angst of the flight attendants and the man sitting next to me. A few years later the doctor told me that because the eustachian tubes in my ears weren’t working properly, my head wasn’t able to accommodate extreme changes in pressure and flight might never be an option for me.
But fly I must. and this time the flight was even longer than Paris, more than 12 hours, and I had no idea if the pain would make another appearance and be even worse because of a much higher altitude. What if the pain began at takeoff and remained for the entire flight? How could I escape that? What if I passed out again and this time in front of my hosts? Those thoughts kept my blood pressure screaming for weeks and weeks and it was all the fault of the Japanese.
While JETRO seemed genuinely sympathetic about my fall from a horse that made me unable to accept their invitation to take a tour of Japan as their guest, they were relentless. Less than a month after the initial request, a second one came. If I had sufficiently recovered to make the long but very comfortable trip, they asked, would I mind participating in the next similar event, happening in less than four weeks?
I was genuinely charmed by their persistence, intrigued by it, and even proud that the work we were doing, the revolution we were about to spark, was so clearly recognized and appreciated by that great nation that they simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.
This time I had an excuse though, a real one, and a nearly perfect one. And while this time it didn’t involve a horse, it was still about an unexpected fall to earth. I had decided for reasons I still don’t understand today that I should try skydiving. I found a club with its own airstrip outside Dublin and dove straight in. Or out.
While the first couple of jumps were safe enough because of the large and cheery man whose belly I was strapped to, the third jump didn’t go so well. And probably because it really wasn’t smart to allow complete novices to jump alone after just two tandem attempts.
But they did, and then so did I. It was a bright, hot, and sunny day, a rare one. I was jumping with a traditional parachute, round and military style, and not a more modern canopy that would give me much greater control and especially over direction and speed.
I landed the jump at eighteen miles an hour and in the sheer exhilaration and terror I forgot the final rule of ankles and knees together and roll away from the landing. Instead I ran away, landing hard and trying to run the landing instead of trolling across the terra.
The speed was too much and the ground too hard, and the pain was excruciating as I telescoped my joints from ankle to hip. Nothing permanent, nothing broken, although the hospital warned me that any collateral damage might show up as arthritis as I grew older.
Even though I could barely walk without significant pain, it might appear deeply disrespectful to both the Japanese and Irish governments if I were to refuse for a second time. And with a very similar story. So I relented and accepted.
The tour would last eight days, eight precious days that I couldn’t afford to be away from Intrepid and especially as we were expecting the birth of our first child at any time. And also because my relentless hunt for investors became my consuming focus.
The JETRO program had invited more than fifty entrepreneurs, business leaders, and government executives from more than 30 countries. The publicly-stated goal of the massively expensive and generous program was to diffuse simmering accusations that while Japan expected the world to open its arms to all that Japan had to offer, and especially in the realm of technology, Japan itself was so difficult for foreign companies to navigate it was essentially a closed market.
The entire event turned out to be little more than a lavishly choreographed grand tour of the old empire. In addition to covering the costs of luxury travel and accommodation, the package included a daily stipend to cover meals, although we were treated to so many elaborate lunches and dinners it wasn’t really necessary. Each participant was also assigned a guide and translator and mine was a painfully pretty and very demure young woman whose name was Miko.
Over the next eight days we were all subjected to an endless round of sleep-inducing conferences and presentations where the entire theme seemed to be a national denial that Japan was a closed market. Combined with constant reminders of just how great and efficient they were at everything. It seemed like a quick note on the aircraft would have been sufficient because no one in the group seemed to believe or care.
The monotony was strategically broken by a bullet-train ride to Toyota City just outside Nagoya and a glimpse of some of Toyota’s futuristic vehicles, and then further south to the ancient city of Kyoto and a tour of the Golden Pavilion.
The highlight for me of the whirlwind extravaganza was the only face-to-face business meeting that had been arranged for me in the entire eight days, but with a company so significant it was becoming clear why the Japanese were so keen to have me participate. In spite of my repeated injuries.
My faithful sidekick Miko was the only one who accompanied me to my meeting with three executives of the giant Mitsui family of companies, where I had planned to explain to them how our secure telephone was not unlike their Toyota. A phone for the people, made better than anyone else’s, and a reminder to the Americans that when it came to technology, laurels were for wearing proudly and not resting upon.
I’d been warned before the meeting not to share too much about the product too soon, and especially to resist any requests to see source code or diagrams of our printed circuit boards. Even if they existed. So all I brought with me were some carefully typed and bound descriptions of the business opportunity and the competitors, and mocked-up photos of the phone,
As Miko made the introductions, we all greeted each other with bows and the exchange of business cards and went through yet another Japanese tradition of carefully studying the words on the cards, nodding and smiling in approval at the significance of those words. My hosts delicately placed my newly minted business cards in their sterling silver business card holders while I stuffed theirs in the breast pocket of my jacket and we all sat.
I started unraveling my pitch, slowly and painfully translated by Miko sentence by sentence as she struggled to find equivalents for concepts like encryption and CELP and speech synthesis. The other side of the table was attentive and supportive, nodding and smiling constantly and seemingly understanding and appreciative of our great achievement.
My opening argument lasted for about ten minutes and if they were moved by anything I said, they didn’t show it. Finally, the seeming youngest of the three spoke up in perfect English “So this essentially prevents others from listening in to your phone calls, correct?”
“Correct,” I said, “anybody,” and he translated my response to his colleagues who nodded enthusiastically for what seemed much longer than a simple translation, only to come back with their only substantial question of the entire meeting “So why would anyone want to listen in to someone else’s phone conversations?”
I couldn’t tell if they were playing dumb, genuinely dumb, or were emersed in such a deep pool of Japanese business integrity that they really couldn’t concieve of anyone wanting to do something so inappropriate.
But I could tell one thing. The meeting was a waste of time, and if it was the only meeting, the entire trip was a waste of time. So I got drunk at a bar in the Roppongi district with a handful of Marines from the nearby American embassy, and at 2 in the morning very reluctantly rejected the advances of an immaculately dressed young woman who approached me in the elevator and very quietly asked me if I was sleeping alone that night.
During the descent into Tokyo my head did hurt, but not as badly as the descent into Paris all those years before. So that alone was a triumph. Maybe I wouldn’t be sentenced to a lifetime of train and ferry travel after all. But just to be safe, my ride home, my less than triumphant return to Ireland, would be different, because I wasn’t going to take any chances. The mission had been accomplished, even if I didn’t know exactly what the mission was or if I’d accomplished anything. But I could relax now and had at least twelve hours to figure out how exactly I would do that.
My companion for the flight home was Stan Mallon, representing the Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board and supposed to be a sworn enemy of a southern Catholic like me. But any hints of animosity, or fears of the descent, were washed away by the endless pouring of free champagne by a small and utterly attentive army of Mikos.
My last memory of that trip was riding around the baggage carousel at Heathrow Airport, trying my best to imitate unclaimed luggage as Stan fought a brave battle between laughing hysterically and keeping his balance. I learned a few years later that Stan had been arrested in a sex sting operation in Chicago, on his way to a White House reception, for trying to meet with an FBI agent posing as a 14-year-old girl.
My return to Intrepid was treated less like that of a conquering hero, or even a prodigal son, but more like the drunk who keeps coming back into the same bar no matter how often he’s told he’s not welcome. I knew I’d need a good story for Shea so I decided to make it a fine one. “The meeting with Mitsui,” I said “That could be huge.” Or at least the lies would have to be. “I think they might be interested in investing, at least judging by the questions they asked.”
Shea was wide-eyed and attentive so naturally I pushed ever on. “I think the biggest interest might be with Toshiba,” I said. “Did you know Mitsui owned them?” He didn’t know and I knew he didn’t but now I was completely in the know and of things of far greater importance than he might imagine. “America’s the biggest phone market for Toshiba,” I explained, without a shred of knowledge to back it up. “I think they’re looking at Milcode to show they’re a serious player in encryption.”
Shea and I spent half an hour excitedly discussing all the options and opportunities and ramifications, and he seemed genuinely excited at the thought that if the Japanese could manufacture Milcode in large quantities, we could eventually make the price unbeatable. Maybe we could even license the phone to them completely and move on to even bigger and more challenging projects.
But the news I brought from Japan was marginally less exciting than the news that awaited me. Shea had his own news to share, or at least news about news. Daragh had told him he was confident that we might have a demonstration of the final speech quality in about a week.
“You mean the real thing?”
“Yes. Digitized, compressed, encrypted, decrypted, expanded, and back to clear speech.” he stroked his beard. “But just a recording. Not the real thing.”
That would be enough, for everyone, for now, and its significance was that it would be the first clear proof of concept, that we would be the first to implement CELP in any kind of security environment and anywhere in the world. Not quite a phone, just a recording of what a phone might sound like, but still great progress. And a huge and momentous win for this team of vagrants.
But even more exciting news lay on my desk, unknown to me in Japan and to everyone passing just feet away because Gemma had never bothered to look or to tell. Two brief communications that between them represented the five most important names in the history of cryptography. And they all wanted to speak to us.
The first was a letter from an American company called RSA, named after its founders Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman and signed by Ron Rivest. RSA had helped to pioneer and patent the core of the public key technology we were planning to use, and I assumed their letter was inspired by the article in the Australian Naval Institute journal.
The letter informed us, politely but firmly, that RSA had become aware that we were considering using a public key exchange in our new secure phone, and that not only would they prefer that we use RSA’s system over Diffie Hellman, but that any use of any public key system might be an infringement of their patent.
Although clearly a threat, I chose to take it instead as an absolute compliment. That they not only knew of our existence and wanted to work with us, but that they feared we might invite someone else to the dance. The second message was from another suitor who was even more brazen.
That message related to two other cryptography legends, Bailey Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, who had also developed a widely popular public key system similar to RSA and about the same time and known simply as the Diffie Hellman public key exchange. The first half of the name, Whit Diffie, was widely regarded as the father of public key cryptography, and a legend in this new world. And he wanted to meet us.
He’d sent us a short fax just before I’d arrived home and letting us know that he might be in Europe in the coming weeks and would love the opportunity to drop by and see what we were doing with encryption. What he could possibly be doing in our woods other than being lost baffled me completely and so I decided it was all just a polite ruse and he was coming here just and specifically for us.
I stared at both notes for a while, skipping from one to the other and trying to make sense when there wasn’t really any. Both requests were of such significance that they more than compensated for my failure to win anything in Japan. But I had to make sure that as far as Shea and the rest were concerned, this was just more good news and a great testament to my ability to make us known around the world and in the highest of places.
I tried my best to camouflage my excitement or smugness as I strolled in dignified triumph out of my office and south across the border, where I ceremoniously instructed the entire technical team including Shea to lay down their tools and stop what they were doing so that I could share some interesting news out loud and in front of everyone. Including Shea. And especially Shea.
The news was greeted with looks of disbelief and glances at Shea until I asked them to pass the documents around and see for themselves. Shea grabbed them first and studied them closely and slowly, and his bushy eyebrows vacillating between slightly raised and fully raised and back again.
“I don’t know how you managed to pull that off, but congratulations.” He probably did know how I pulled it off, because it was probably the Australian Naval Journal article again and because it was the only public discussion of our efforts. Who else would have alerted them to our work?
The challenge now was to see if we could have that very significant demonstration of the vocoder or any other element ready for the arrival of Whit. We responded immediately by fax that we’d be honored to have him as our guest, show him our great and ancient city, and introduce him to what we assumed was his first pint of real Guinness. And maybe even from the tit of the mothership itself, the Guinness Brewery at St James Gate and just a short drive from the office.
Because I was a few days late in receiving the fax and responding, when Whit agreed to accept our offer, although minus the tour of the brewery because of his tight schedule, we had only a week to prepare. So while the back office toiled well into the early morning of every day and an entire weekend too to get ready for the great unveiling, we at the front of the house changed our routine little. Except perhaps for Ciaran, who had a rare aura of joy and anticipation and perfectly understandable because he was the only one who really recognized the significance of the visit. And the person making it.
Gemma and Sinead tidied and organized, even painted some patches on the walls, and tested a variety of air fresheners in an effort to hide the ever present musty damp smell that many visitors commented on but that most of us were used to by now.
As the day of Whit’s arrival approached, Shea seemed to grow more pessimistic about the chance that we’d have a working demonstration of a vocoder ready to reveal. And while it clearly bothered him, I wasn’t sure if it was because he desperately wanted his team to get the recognition they clearly deserved, or that I might hold it against him.
But I was sure that I didn’t really care. The greatest legend in the world of cryptography was coming all the way to Ireland just to see us, and it probably meant at the very least that we were gaining respect.
Even greater if he could introduce us to his employer Northern Telecom, who weren’t invited to participate in the development and sale of the STU3. Only their biggest competitors AT&T, RCA, and Motorola were allowed to sell the STU and we hoped that Northern Telecom was looking for the chance to leapfrog their biggest competitors with a much superior phone that cost a lot less. What revenge that would be for them. And Whit might be persuaded to convey that message. Unless that was why he was visiting us in the first place.
We offered to collect Whit from the airport but he declined. Which was very disappointing because I really wanted an opportunity to show off my brand new used Volvo. He was staying at the Shelbourne Hotel just a short walk from our office and offered instead to meet us at our office.
It wouldn’t be the grand welcome I had imagined for the past week. My gray black Volvo 760 Turbo Intercooler was identical to those increasingly popular with diplomats and government ministers in Dublin, and I’d realized early on that if I drove the car with a certain flair and attitude, other drivers would mistake me for something more than I was.
Which is why I was looking forward to sweeping Whit across the city as though we had our own police escort. Instead we all paced and glanced nervously around our basement and waited for the knock. Or the buzzer. Whichever actually worked.
Sinead was chosen as the lookout, and manned the front office where the meeting would take place, because it gave a great view of the street above and anyone coming and going through the front door directly above us.
After nearly thirty minutes of waiting and shuffling the call rang out. “There’s a man up there looking down in the window,” hissed Sinead. “He looks the spit of Willie Nelson.” I only knew Willie Nelson for singing in We Are The World which we all thought was just an American ripoff of Band Aid created by our own Bob Geldof. Who was then further insulted by only being invited to sing in the chorus of the American effort. But Willie was no doubt innocent in all of it and we’d all moved on anyway.
It had been agreed that Shea, Brendan, Daragh, and Ciaran would lead the technical discussion, explaining their own roles and area of expertise, while I would remain in the background and focus on the business opportunity if that topic came up. It would be a tight fit in the small room that had only four chairs around an unstable desk that took up most of the room.
We all rushed to our preassigned positions in the reception area where it had also been agreed that I would greet our guest, introduce him to Shea first and then the rest of the office. That would be followed by a quick tour of the entire facility, which you really could see in its entirety if you just looked left and squinted right, and then to the front office where the ceremonial unveiling of our great work would take place.
Even before I set eyes on or spoke to him, I could tell Whit was a careful man. Rather than choose between a knock and a buzzer, he opted for both. Which immediately confused Sinead as she tried to launch herself through the crowd to the back of the office to hit the lock release.
We paused for a moment, it only seemed polite, and I pulled open the door just as Sinead hit the button for the lock release and there he stood. It was really him. One of the greatest cryptographers the world had ever known, a legend in a field most people never heard about, had just knocked on our door. And we were all waiting. It was the best knock ever.
Sinead was right, and I could see the Willie Nelson similarity. But I also saw more Kris Kristofferson. Or maybe even Bob Seger. He looked cleaner and less sun-worn than Willie, a bit more formally dressed in jeans and sneakers and a well-cut corduroy jacket. He was a little more than ten years older than I, and a much better beard and tan than I.
But his most notable feature was his magnificent mane of shiny wavy hair that framed his face and ran down well past his shoulders. He had a beard to match, long and silklike as though custom-ordered from the same store. His face seemed already a little wrinkled and maybe from a lifetime of peering and smiling.
He wasn’t a big man, or particularly tall, in fact much like any other mathematician I’d encountered before. But he had an air and grace that made his presence feel much greater, a calming confidence that was instantly warm and reassuring, and a massive and genuine smile that seemed to hide nothing. Maybe it was just the American swagger and self-confidence, or perhaps we were just bewitched by the moment.
I shook his hand and thanked him for taking the time to travel all this way just to see us but he assured me it was no big deal because he was, as he had mentioned before, in the neighborhood anyway. Which didn’t reassure me at all. Even though he said he was on his way to attend a conference in Scotland, I imagined he meant to say that on his way here he decided to take in a conference in Scotland. And why not.
Shea stepped in and introduced himself and the team and offered Whit a tour starting at the back of the office where everything of importance occured. And although our cramped offices looked very much like the file storage basement they were intended for, as we walked and chatted I felt a moment of intense pride, rather than shame, that we had come so far and achieved so much with little more than a hovel and a handful of rudimentary tools. And Whit seemed to sense that too, as he glanced around at the peeling walls and broken furniture and worn-out test equipment and cracked snippets of smiles. And maybe it brought him back to a different time and place too.
Willie Nelson spent a little more than an hour with us, most of it huddled with Ciaran, Daragh, and Shea in the front office as they explained to Whit the type of encryption algorithm they were developing, how they intended to use Whit’s public key, and how they had figured out how to overcome even theoretical attacks like man in the middle.
Whit seemed very pleased with what he heard, and expressed himself confident that if we could achieve all this and at the size and price we were promising, we might be on to something. I wanted to reassure him that we would be much more than something but it wouldn’t have been polite to our guest.
The monumental event was rounded out by a short stroll in the sunshine to a greasy lunch and a couple of tall dark blondes at Toner’s pub, just half way between our office and Whit’s hotel. As we exchanged thanks and goodbyes, Whit asked us to keep in touch and let him know as soon as we had a working prototype and we assured him that we’d do just that.
We never saw or heard from Whit again, or Northern Telecom, but it didn’t really matter. He had validated both our theory and our significance, and had given us bragging rights that few in the industry or the country could match. Besides, we didn’t really need him anyway. Better things were about to happen to Intrepid, as they always seemed to.