Recently we got a memo from the Provost’s Office insisting that we encrypt our laptop computers with military-grade security software. Since I went to graduate school for English and not computer science, I failed miserably at the task. So I had to call my friend Ken Kleinkram, who was just named Associate Pinch Provost for Informatic Assets at a salary several multiples of my own. Ken came over to my office with a set of tiny screwdrivers and a device that looked like a tricorder.
“Let’s see if we can’t get you encrypted, Timbo,” said Ken. “First of all: are you connected to the Internet?”
“Ha ha,” I said, “the old ‘Tim’s an idiot’ assumption. I am certainly connected to the Internet,” I said, “it’s this grey cord that comes out of this socket here.” Which I picked up and pulled out of the various desk spaghetti, to find that the other end was plugged into my printer.
“That might explain your issues,” said Ken. He plugged something into something else, intoned a few incantations, pressed a few keys, and suddenly some element of my laptop began to rumble away like a reactor preparing for a meltdown.
“That program will run in the background for 36 hours,” said Ken. “Just don’t turn your computer off in the meantime. And don’t try to log into MyMav or Blackboard while the encryption is running.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “It’s the first week of the semester, so MyMav and Blackboard are down anyway. But tell me this: why do I need military-grade encryption on my laptop? It already has a password.”
“But what if somebody stole your laptop, broke it open, and extracted the hard disk? Thieves have procured countless bytes of essential medical-research data from unencrypted university laptops across the nation.”
“I don’t do medical research, Ken. I teach poetry.”
Ken thought for a minute. “You’re going to go all snarky on me in a sec, aren’t you?” he said. “Can you shut up for ten minutes while I explain how vital this encryption can be to the University and the State of Texas?”
I promised to restrain myself.
“OK, then,” Ken said, clicking on my hard-disk icon. “Let me show you the kinds of problems you’re not anticipating. Look at all this data that would just lie around unencrypted if you didn’t comply. What’s this, for instance?” He clicked on a file, and a checkerboard-like grid came up.
“That’s the Monday Prize Crossword Puzzle from the Financial Times.”
“Did you solve it?”
“I have one word left to get. If I mail in the first randomly drawn correct answer, I win a Collins Gem Dictionary!”
“And what if somebody from Texas A&M steals the answer and wins the dictionary?”
“Presumably it would improve spelling in College Station. But I’m starting to see what you mean. This is some serious intellectual property we’re talking about here.”
“No snark, you promised. What’s this file?”
“Oh, that’s a spreadsheet. I’m trying to find out how many major-league second basemen have played an entire season while hitting more than 20 doubles and grounding into fewer than 10 double plays. I need to find better data, though. Going through newspapers boxscore by boxscore is slow work.”
“And what if that research gets pre-empted by our competitors? Suddenly peer-reviewed results will be racked up by other universities, based on your man-hours of research production. What are these?”
Ken pointed to some dark icons.
“They’re … um … pictures of Whisper Wilson.”
“She isn’t some kind of exotic dancer, is she, Tim?”
“No! Whisper Wilson is my cat.”
Ken clicked on an icon and whistled.
“Think about this, Tim. Suppose somebody posted a picture of Whisper on Facebook.” I stared at the ceiling. “This is by conservative estimate the most adorable cat that has ever been photographed. If someone were to disseminate this photo, innumerable working hours would be spent Liking it, causing the world economy to tailspin out of control.”
I began to feel very glad about encryption.
“There isn’t much else on this machine,” said Ken. “But I think you can see the dangers of leaving it unprotected. No, wait a second – here’s another 10MB of data I didn’t see before. The folder is called The Girl with the Phoenix Tattoo. What’s that, Tim?”
“Oh,” I said, “that’s a draft of my novel. It’s a completely original idea. It’s about this English professor named Mitt Sorem, see? He’s 53 years old and irresistible to women. So he has this student who’s 19, she’s got a lot of piercings and wears leather and has a tattoo of a phoenix on her back. They have wild sex and drink lots of coffee. And it turns out she’s a hacker, and she breaks into this computer network where the drug cartel is funneling money through a Swedish furniture store and there are also spies. They beat the cartel with hacking and martial arts and Mitt Sorem gets locked in a serial killer’s basement and the girl frees him by hitting the serial killer with a badminton racket.”
“A badminton racket?”
“I may have to think more about that one. But it’s great stuff, it’ll sell mill…”
“And you’re writing this story on a UTA laptop, Tim, which means that it’s an invention and/or concept which belongs to the State of Texas. If it gets stolen by an unscrupulous literary agent, we would not only lose our investment in your intellectual labor, but you yourself would have to reimburse the university for foregone revenue.”
I grabbed my laptop and threw it out the window.
“I told you not to disconnect the machine!” screamed Ken.
“That’s fine, I’ll do without a laptop,” I said. “You’ve convinced me, the risks are just too great.”
“But you still have the idea for the novel in your head, right?” said Ken.
“Come over here,” said Ken. He inserted a USB drive into my ear. “Hold still for the next 36 hours. We’re going to have to encrypt your brain.”