Hello world! Hello also to Bonnie, books, .ch and Clyde.

I have just got to Switzerland, where I will stay for a few weeks as a visiting researcher. The very short list of affordable things here includes milk, cheese, potatoes, wine, oranges and, apparently, taxi rides.

After seeing Bonnie and Clyde at the local cinémathèque, my thoughts turned briefly to Fahrenheit 451, which was made into a (less significant) movie at about the same time. (There is no obvious connection, beyond the fact that Truffaut was apparently invited to direct the former, and declined because of his commitment to the latter.)

A NYT film critic then wrote:

I can only suggest to you how dismal and unexciting he is—and by this demonstration show you how bloodless and pompous is the film—by telling you that the schoolteacher for whom he conceives a high regard is a bleakly defeminized version of his elegant, sexy wife who doesn’t care beans for reading and gets all her information from watching the wall-to-wall television screen.

Now, I do not suggest for one moment that the idea elucidated here is not fundamentally wholesome. A woman who bravely reads books is more likely to be socially constructive than one who is hung on TV.

[…]Nothing could be more depressing than seeing people ambling through the woods of what looks to be a sort of adult literary camp, mechanically reciting “The Pickwick Papers” and Plato’s “Dialogues,” or seeing a dying man compelling his grandson to recite after him and commit to memory Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished “Weir of Hermiston.”

This is, of course, just an example of North American Maoism (of the left-wing or right-wing shade – it matters little). (The reviewer may also have been unaware of the fact that memorisation is precisely how texts were transmitted in literate cultures before the invention of print, as manuscripts were expensive and rare.) At the same time, one can wonder – to what extent do we have a visceral reaction to book-burning because we are conditioned to do so by its history? (And is this conditioning actually shared by most people, film critics included?) Already in the twentieth century, book-burning must have been meant as a form of intimidation and display that relied on this conditioning – it does not a particularly effective way to repress something that is already in print.

Is our reaction – and the reaction of the audience public book-burnings were meant to have – thus a function of something historical long predating fascism – religious burnings of books, say? Even then, there was something beyond the fact that one could burn the last remaining copy of a book – thus Abelard counts his being forced to burn his own book as one of his two bitterest experiences (Historia Calamitatum, Ch. 5) even though it did survive in other copies and many versions, as he presumably would have known.

How do things work out in other media? Film negatives are irreplaceable and vulnerable, and even used to be highly flammable; moreover, there are plenty of examples of films that are permanently lost, i.e., neither negatives nor prints survive. Nevertheless, somehow the image of burning film is less common; even its representation in films is not very common, and the two examples I can think of focus on the danger posed to individuals, rather than on the loss of the film itself.

What about electronic media? Anybody who started to use computers in the twentieth century must be used to deleting files on a regular basis to save on space. Does this affect whether we have a reaction to the destruction of files? Is it fine to destroy a .ps or .pdf, but not a .tex file? Is it just “rm -rf *” that provokes an instinctive reaction?

(On a related but not identical note: does everybody have memories of youth involving going through a pine or elm folder doing a search for a From: field and pressing the “delete” key repeatedly – and, if so, was it as satisfying as throwing letters into a fire?)

Going back to the original topic: it is difficult to understand why the two main characters in many papers on cryptography or information transmission are called Alice and Bob, instead of the obvious choice, viz., Bonnie and Clyde. This alternative convention has the added advantage of reserving the letter A for further usage.


About valuevar

I am a number theorist with side interests in combinatorics and group theory.
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9 Responses to Hello world! Hello also to Bonnie, books, .ch and Clyde.

  1. Farah says:

    So, if you are lost in an island and you could only have access to books or TV, which one would you choose?

  2. Ricardo Menares says:

    And what if you rent a TV?

  3. valuevar says:

    Two more examples of emotional cinematic depiction of media destruction – more to complete the picture than to make any sort of point.

    In 1990, if I remember correctly, while the fascists trash Olmo’s house, one of them gleefully reports that they have found books. (Whatever they then do to them happens offscreen.) This works on two levels: for Olmo – who still lives in the farm labourers’ quarters where he was born – his chest of books will be both very difficult to replace and most likely the one personal posession he has any sentimental attachment to; at the same time, it is obvious that the screen fascists will particularly enjoy destroying books in some slow and unspeakable fashion, and this is part of their characterisation.

    In Kiss Me Deadly, the main character – Mike Hammer, a private investigator – holds a vinyl (or rather shellac!) record, comments on it admiringly, and nonchalantly breaks it in two. It is a favorite record of a side character; the act is meant by Hammer to make him talk – it succeeds. It also succeeds in portraying Hammer once and for all as utterly brutal and repellent – this in a film involving multiple gruesome murders and starting with a woman’s torture. Again, it is certainly not the case that the record is a last copy, or even very difficult to replace, though it is a collection piece. Something else is at work here.

    (Is even rm -rf * blunted nowadays because of frequent backups at work? Would “FORMAT C:” have done the job twenty years ago?)

    (Also, there are better pages on Kiss me Deadly; beware reading anything much about it, since I imagine it can be significantly spoiled – quite a bit more than average.)

  4. Anne-Maria says:

    Your remark regarding cryptography and the use of Alice and Bob is actually correct. (Don’t take this wrong: I don’t mean “actually” in the sense that it shouldn’t be correct because it’s your remark but “actually” in the sense that I had never thought of it even though it’s pretty obvious, so I’m surprised.) Especially since they use E as Eve or Evil or Enemy for the hacker, and not C which would be the expected choice while using the alphabetical order.

    Probably cryptographers want to think that they serve good instead of criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, and therefore, want to use some more neutral names.

  5. valuevar says:


    Your point is well made. At the same time,

    1. This would hardly be the beginning of the mythologisation of Bonnie and Clyde, as that has been going on for a rather long time. The unusual thing
    for me is not that they became to some extent folk heroes – after all,
    this was the Great Depression, and many people were robbed by the banks; also, the same thing had happened long before, e.g., to Jesse
    James. What is unusual here is that they – or at least Bonnie – played a
    conscious role in creating their own legend, extending to text itself:
    Bonnie Parker sent a fatalistic ballad to the newspapers predicting her own death (and explicitly mentioning Jesse James as a forerunner).

    (Some would argue that the film exaggerated the extent to what its characters had become folk heroes. Quite aside from whether that is the case, I would say it both romanticises them and undermines such romanticisation, both by going into attributes that are not conventionally considered heroic (Clyde’s doubts and health problems) and by refusing to idealise them. After the first killing in the film, only Clyde (who killed the man in a split-second decision) is shocked and considers this to be a great misfortune; Bonnie comes across as both unworried and very callous, and their accomplice seems to be a simpleton.)

    Of course, one could argue that this is a bandwagon some people may not want to jump on, but, given the distance from the original events, it would seem to me to be clear that any reference to “Bonnie and Clyde” will be understood primarily as a cultural reference to the icons of popular imagination; the historical figures, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, are of secondary importance here.)

    Vous avez lu l’histoire…

    (b) Alice and Bob communicate in secret over noisy phone lines and try the best to avoid detection by both competitors and the authorities. Are there really supposed to be such clean figures? Come on.

  6. Anne-Maria says:

    Your point is pretty convincing. However, imagine that you were a young new cryptographer, ready to come on the field, and consider whether you wish to associate with Bonnie and Clyde or Alice and Bob.

    First of all, the names Bonnie & Clyde have the sort of criminal ring. No matter if it all had been just imagination, and they would have been peaceful sellers in the market place, the combination of their names just shouts “we are doing something wrong”, and therefore, if you even pretend to be doing something good with crypto, you cannot associate with them.

    Alice and Bob on the other hand. They seem to be doing shady things, but you can always think of those as being rumours since not nearly all of the authors mention those. Their reputation is not universally lost, and therefore, it is a better idea to associate with them. (Besides, considering the kind of tools they have, and how clever they are, they are probably also more beneficial for you. They sound like they are really good at making offers one can’t refuse – maybe that’s why so many want to associate with them.)

    Finally, if you wish to be even deeper in denial, you can always think of Alice and Bob as these poor creatures living in North Korea or USSR or somewhere, Alice’s husband as a member of the party, and Alice as an honest hard worker who just wants to be able to own some money, and Bob so helpfully helping her except the one time, when party nearly caught him and sent to Siberia, and in order to save his life he had to give some information about Alice. While Alice totally understands the situation, she still can’t really trust Bob. (The story doesn’t tell how Alice didn’t end up to Siberia, probably her husband’s good connections saved her, and because of that, the husband has ever since been a bit suispicious about Alice’s dealings.) The expensive calls, tapped and cranky phonelines would definitely support this theory.

  7. valuevar says:

    I always thought of a cryptographer as a harmless academic who desperately wanted to think of himself or herself as slightly evil. (Otherwise, why do cryptography?) In this context, the exciting criminal image of Bonnie and Clyde is highly desirable.

    I suppose that, if you have a potentially harmful and perhaps slightly evil person who desperately wants think of himself or herself as an academic, then Bonnie and Clyde are certainly references to avoid – go for Cold War stereotypes, by all means!

    (All my love to Cheltenham.)

  8. Anne-Maria says:

    I always thought that crypto is what you do if you
    a) want to do something borderline number theory but get a better salary than in the university
    b) want to pretend that you are doing something useful with your number theory
    c) are a broke freshman student in the university, and need a job for the summer (although crypto is a really fun summer job).

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