When I began dating, the universe neglected to provide me with step-by-step instructions — only a vague sort of stage directions. He is here, you are there, hold hands, kiss, cut, thank you everyone, now we are done. The film director might have gone home, but I was still there, baffled.
So what happens next? After the kissing and the sex? How do I handle it? More specifically, how do I handle Matt?
We met at a frat party, and I liked him a lot. Then he fell off the face of the earth. Was it something I said? Was he messing with my head? Was he lying dead in a ditch? Girlfriends were no help — they were dealing with pretty much the same garbage. Books on dating were confusing and self-contradictory. Besides, there was no way I was going to subscribe to the idea of interplanetary courtship.
But then, into my hands fell the ultimate dating manual. It was a textbook on information systems security.
I was supposed to have been studying for midterms. Instead, I was glued to this book that was expertly dealing with all my dating problems. In plain language, information systems security is about protecting computers from bad people and bad things. That bad people would want to do bad stuff to your computers was a given with the authors. I liked them instantly. A fine, paranoid bunch. And they hadn’t even met Matt. Boy, I had a lot to learn.
With bated breath, I read that risk was a likelihood that something nasty would happen to an asset on the system. I had an asset: me. I was my own best asset.
But I had a gaping security hole: my self-esteem. To patch it up, I had to get a career, sort things out with my parents, and make friends with the girl I saw in the mirror every day. Since I correctly suspected it would take me all of the next decade to do, I had to build up some walls in the meantime. Now that I knew what was up, I looked for specifics.
Matt? What do I do about bloody Matt?
The answer was right there, in the chapter on high-security systems. It said that users who do not bother logging in for a few days (they phrased it as “fail to authenticate their login in a timely fashion”) lose their right of access.
See? The computer does not run after the user and say, “Why? Why are you not logging on? It’s been a week! Aren’t you interested anymore?”
Instead, the next time the guy tries to check his email, an obnoxious “access denied” flashes across the screen.
Suddenly, Matt’s motives no longer mattered. In fact … who the hell was Matt? I was a system, complex and fabulous. Why would I care about some dude’s schedule? The particular entry labeled “Matt” was expunged from memory.
Of course, a week later, he was back. He called. And he was met with, “I am sorry, and you are …? Matt? Ummm … Matt. So, how are you … Matt?”
No, I was busy that Friday. No, I did not remember we had planned to catch a movie. Did we really? By the time he convinced me that I had a reason to like him, he had — strangely — lost all urge to disappear mysteriously.
Most importantly, however, I was not pretending. Somehow, what I had read genuinely changed my outlook. Any guy who did not give enough of a damn ceased to exist the moment his lack of interest became clear. There were tons of users out there. My time was too valuable.
The immediate Matt problem was solved, but I kept on reading (we were coming up to finals anyway). System availability was next. Some of the time, the system is accessible online, some of the time, it is not (downtime). The more available the system, the easier it is to break into. But, the authors ruefully conceded, you cannot take the system offline entirely. And the best way to thwart attacks (though abysmally bad for business) is to spring downtime randomly.
Like, right after sex. Guys love doing that, no? Sleep with a girl and disappear. For a week. Offline. Downtime. I so, so wanted to give it a try. Poor Matt. We went away for a weekend, made the Kama Sutra look like an unimaginative book about gymnastics, and then — poof! — I was gone. Phone turned off, girlfriends oblivious, emails unanswered. The dude nearly got carpal tunnel from the frantic dialing and … well, whatever else he was doing.
But it was when they talked about authentication through symbol recognition that they really had me. It’s standard practice now, but when the textbook was written, CAPTCHA was still fairly new. You know when you are asked to type in a bunch of symbols to prove that you are not a robot? A human can recognize a distorted image of a letter or a number and respond correctly, but most web bots can’t.
Of course! The times when I yammered to Matt about something I really cared for, and his eyes sort of glazed over and he breathed out, “yeah, totally” — I might have been lovelorn and gullible, but the information security people were on to him.
I, too, began using CAPTCHA. Instead of telling him plainly that I had liked this or that book and getting an “oh, yeah, baby” in return, I would slip a distorted reference into the conversation. I wouldn’t ask him if he liked Arthur C. Clarke’s stories. But we would be watching the night sky, and I’d wonder if the stars were going to wink out. It’s impossible to be a sci-fi aficionado and not know this quote. Matt was a fake. It’s not, you understand, that he didn’t like sci-fi. It’s that he never bothered to admit it either way.
Matt just had to go. The textbook as much as said so. And anything these guys said was gold to me by now. So I certainly retained their last nugget of wisdom — keep a log. If repeated break-in attempts come from the same internet address, block any logins from that address right away. The textbook did not say, “Give the guy a chance. He might have destroyed the operating system before, but he is probably very sorry now. He wouldn’t be trying to hack in again if he weren’t, right?”
Nobody who deliberately and viciously set out to do damage, whether for kicks or personal gain, was going to be handed an “all clear” for another stab. But that wasn’t Matt. He was actually a sweetheart, but just not my guy. No, that would have been … what’s the name … ah, John. But since John had been blocked for good after all the shit he tried to pull, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about … what was the name again? … yes, John.
So when all the fancy words were stripped away, what was I left with? If you want to be happy and secure, date guys who really get you, and are genuinely into the same stuff. Date guys who like you enough and care enough to make contact regularly, and have the decency to warn you when they have to be away. Being left abruptly and without an explanation hurts. Don’t date any guy who would do that. If someone really treated you like crap, don’t give them a chance for a repeat performance.
Whether you are an expensive computer connected to the web, or a stupid girl wading through the dating morass, it is best to be protected from being played by jerks.
Simple. The three engineers who authored that book, I salute you. One day, I’ll give my kids a copy.
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