The week of February 14 was one of the hardest weeks I’ve had. It was both physically and mentally exhausting with a good dose of stress. Apparently this happens in academia but I sure hope to avoid it as much as possible. That week contained three events of significance. An international flight to Barbados, the Glee Club Spring Show, and the USENIX security deadline. Of these, by far the most important was the deadline.
USENIX security is the top publishing venue in my field (Applied Cryptography and Security) and my group had three papers to submit. Two of the three were very high profile and collaborative, and the one remaining a product of our group alone. They were also not quite ready to be published. The one which was eventually accepted “DROWN: Breaking TLS using SSLv2” describes a method by which a malicious person could read internet communications that were supposedly encrypted, numbering up to 29% of all HTTPS connections. excitingly enough our work was even reported in the mainstream media, but this didn’t alleviate the amount of work needed to get it ready for publication.
Another one of the publications with which I was involved was “A Systematic Analysis of the Juniper Dual EC Incident” that examines how attempts to backdoor the security capabilities of a class of corporate network devices backfired and allowed a malicious entity to commandeer it for themselves. Again our research was reported in the media much to my excitement. Both papers had policy implications as decisions made for policy reasons impacted the development of the above technologies and lead both directly and indirectly to the vulnerabilities. My lab and I consider this to be a fruitful research direction and hope to publish more papers in related areas.
These two and the other paper ensured my days started early, and even without rehearsals, would have ended late. I was in the lab every day by 9.30AM, and left at around 6.30PM for rehearsal. Rehearsals were enjoyable but I couldn’t fully commit myself knowing there was work to be done. I made sure I was present for the bare minimum needed to perform and left most nights at 10PM to get back to the lab to stay there until 3 or 4AM when Nadia, Luke, Josh Fried (a new undergraduate lab-mate) and I physically couldn’t stay productive. While the work environment was fun with Phillip Glass or Europop in the background, it was tough to focus and be productive for so many hours a day. Definitely not the optimal way for me to produce high quality work consistently.
The show later in the week was immensely enjoyable, despite the publication pressure. I featured as one of three depressed clowns in a failing circus, and had a few starring moments. The Penn Pipers (the Glee Club barbershop and do-wop barbershop subset) also had two numbers in the show and I had a few more moments there. Overall, the best part of the show was the musicality that our new director Joshua Glassman brought to our ensemble. This being our first spring show with him presented many challenges, and his busy schedule as a freelance musician all put pressures on everyone, but gladly, it all came together.
Finally, there was my flight to Barbados for a conference, scheduled to depart 6AM Sunday morning from JFK airport, NYC. Unfortunately, the final performance of the Glee Club show was scheduled for less than 12 hours prior, and so immediately following the closing of the curtains, I grabbed by bag, sprinted to a cab and caught the train to NYC…
The journey to Croatia was somewhat more eventful than I’d have hoped. First a train to Newark, then a flight to Toronto. While there I spent my layover in the lounge and attempted to make myself some soup, only spilling the boiling water over my hands and shattering a bowl. Not an ideal start. As I was cleaning up, my backpack split along the seams, spilling my clothes and books onto the floor. After I cleaned up from that I relaxed on an Air Canada flight to Heathrow, albeit with a throbbing sensation in my left hand. My flight was unfortunately a little delayed and that left me with a forty-five minute sprint to transfer in Heathrow and dash through the terminals to catch my flight to Split, Croatia, just as the gate was closing.
When I landed in Croatia, a bus was waiting for me and a few other cryptographers to go Šibenik, a small resort town on the coast where I would be partaking in a cryptography summer school. On the bus I met a few students from Royal Holloway, University of London, Ben, Lydia and Torben who were all lovely. Once there I almost collapsed in exhaustion, barely managing to say hi to Luke before crashing for a few hours.
The next day was fairly unremarkable, with some introductory talks given, and more sneaking out on my part to try and recover from minor illness and some jetlag. It was day two of the program that really shined. Luke introduced me to Henry, a very talented and outspoken student of djb and Tanja Lange’s. He further introduced us to a few friends of his including Isis, another person I enjoyed spending time with alongside the brits. djb (Dan Berstein) and Tanja are collaborators of ours who do a lot of excellent work in cryptography and thus it was also quite exciting to meet the two of them. Tanja in particular had been delivering kosher, vegan, gummy candies to the lab via Nadia and thus needed much thanks for it.
A few things were really notable at the conference. One was different social circles that people mixed in. Some people definitely aligned themselves more with cypherpunk culture while others maintained more academic detachment. There were plenty of people with radical political views, mostly close to the anarchical and left leaning sides of the spectrum, and it was an interesting chance to hear their views. On a more academic side, the european’s were much more heavily focused on symmetric encryption (where you meet ahead of time to exchange a password) as opposed to our work which focused more on asymmetric (where you do some fancy maths to share something privately).
My last day in Croatia was spent on a tour of Kornati national park, composed of a series of rocky islands that we reached over the course of a three hour boat ride. It was a really nice chance to unwind and spend more time getting to know colleagues in a social situation. I read on the beach, dipped in the water, ate ice cream and climbed to the top of a hill along with friends and lab-mates. Altogether a great day.
At 2.50AM I was off on my way home. This trip wasn’t entirely pleasant either. I arrived hours too early at Split airport, where I called Celeste (more on her at a later point) to chat for thirty minutes while I attempted to stay awake for check-in. A short flight later I was at Zagreb airport with six hours to kill; no lounge, no seating and no check in. A five hour flight stopped in an unnamed country, another thirteen hours to Melbourne, twenty-six minutes from the tarmac through customs and border control and I was on a mad dash home before it got dark on Friday night. I only just made it.
A year and six months later I decided I had too many stories to stop there. Given the wealth of experiences I’ve missed, my aim is to attempt to slowly fill in the missing days in no particular order.
May 18th 2016, I and the glee club departed for what would be my third tour with the group. This was to be my last with the group of people with whom I had joined the glee club and it was thus bittersweet. Additionally, I was coming to realize that tour placed a lot of pressure on me PhD wise and thus I was planning on re-evaluating my ability to go the next year.
Following a very late meeting with Nadia that morning, I arrived home just past midnight, packed my bags and was able to gain around two hours of sleep before awaking for a trip to Philadelphia International Airport. All suited up, this was the glee club’s first year in formal travel wear. While there were some grumbles, I quite enjoyed looking good for my flight. The first leg was to Atlanta, where we would transit on our way to Nashville, and subsequently on our way to every other destination. Needless to say, I don’t feel the need to visit that airport ever again.
Arriving in Nashville marked my first experience of the American South. While the hostel felt no different from a hostel anywhere else, the street outside betrayed a unique culture. While I can’t generalize beyond the touristy areas I visited, my feeling was that I was in a completely different country to the one I had spent the last few years in. Stores selling boots, southern BBQ joints, and life country music filled the footpaths.
The start of the afternoon was spent recovering on our sleep debt from that day, however soon enough we were on our way for some sightseeing. First up: the Tennessee State House.
The interior was quite beautifully designed with large marble columns framing wide open corridors that echoed with our footsteps. We performed briefly for our tour guide and while our music selection was questionable (a South African Folk Song, Bawo Tixo Somandla), the tone was sonorous.
The next day, I and a few others went to explore Vanderbilt University and the surroundings. One very notable structure there was a full sized replica of the Parthenon of Athens. While the exterior was impressive, elements of the interior were as amusing as they were impressive. A reconstruction of a statue of Athena stood prominently inside, and while the scale was large, the colors were somewhat garish. Furthermore during construction, funding had run out and thus the columns were not marble but concrete.
Walking along the path, going into second hand bookshops, we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We came upon an artisan coffee shop and spent a good half hour inside as the owner explained to us many of life’s mysteries and how coffee was a universal force that contained the essence of all nature, captured in the water, condensed from the seas and made from atoms from inside stars.
Evenings in Nashville were spent on Broadway, a street with many bars and live music out of every corner. The greatest appeal for me however, lay in Harmony Hall, the headquarters of the Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly SPEBSQUSA, the Society for the Promotion and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America). There I and the Penn Pipers were treated to both a tour, an a brief lesson singing barbershop ‘tags’. While we were disappointed that a lack of funding had caused the organization to condense its plans for a museum, both Dan Carsello and I enjoyed thoroughly being in the home of the art that we so love.
My last day in Nashville was a Shabbat and thus spent in bed with The Wheel of Time, a book series that I was and am thoroughly enjoying. A 14-book, 12-thousand page high fantasy epic of Rand Al’Thor’s fight against the Shadow Reborn.
New Orleans was hot and humid. A city of jazz and blues, a city of death and rebirth. I keeping with themes of death and rebirth, the glee club went on a ghost tour of New Orleans. Not quite my style but a gentle introduction to the city nonetheless. Our time in New Orleans was punctuated by burst of singing, a beautiful hostel with a questionable library, “tacos and beer”, and for me, plenty of time with my good friend Evan Weinstein.
One sight I visited with Evan that I thoroughly enjoyed was the National WWII Museum, formerly the D-Day Museum. The exhibits were spectacularly put together and gave me insight into the progression of the war in both the European and Pacific fronts. I came away both enriched in knowledge and with a sense for what makes the USA worth fighting for. In the photos below, one I’d draw attention to is the swastika, captured by the Americans on the capture of Italy and defaced with the names of the capturing troops.
The highlight of New Orleans (and of the entire trip) was for me, an encounter with a travelling performer in a caravan. While I can’t recall her name, I can recall the stunning ambience created by her performance from a piano in the corner of her small abode. She sang wistfully songs that connected to emotions the bystanders asked her to portray and served drinks from her diminutive bar mounted on the side.
Following New Orleans, and as an interlude to our regular tour activities came a weekend retreat in Key West, Miami. A beach side town featuring the southernmost point, the southernmost restaurant, the southernmost house, the southernmost artist… well you get the idea…. of the continental United States. Key West was heavily populated by chickens almost as much as people and many clustered around the start of Route 1 USA where a few of us took photos.
Much of our time was spent exploring the town, but the highlight for most glee clubbers, was the ocean cruise. A few hours on a boat with an open bar and a chance to sing for bridesmaids on a hen’s night more than excited a few of our members.
Shabbat was again spent on the adventures of Rand Al’Thor, before leaving subsequently for Miami Beach. Our final concert, in Miami, took place outside on a beautiful day, in a park along the ocean, and gave the seniors and I a chance to reminisce over our years together. It wasn’t long until the sombre mood wore off and we exploring again the boulevards of the city. I again spent much of my time with Evan, sneaking into fancy hotels, eating ice-cream and getting up to general mischief on foot.
All of a sudden tour was over, and I was back at Penn, moving all my items from my old room on the first floor of McIlhenny, Riepe (more on that later), to the third floor of Warwick in preparation for spending a year on ISP. ISP is the Integrated Studies Program, an interdisciplinary residential and curricular program for undergraduate students at Penn, and for 2016 I was to be one of the incoming students many mentors. After moving my stuff, I spent a few days more in the lab, before once again jetsetting. This time for Croatia.
As a special surprise for our new week, Nadia released a new crypto homework. Implementing the Coppersmith partial information attack using lattices (discrete additive subgroups of (better not to ask)). While the actual code wasn’t going to be long, taking the time to understand the material would detract from time spent on our projects, and other assignments.
Machine learning lectures had lessened in intensity and increased in interest. However, with the project deadlines looming, every spare waking moment was dedicated to improving our score. The gist of it was given the text of advertisements, predict house prices for a bunch of homes being sold.
To add to the intensity, the algorithms final was two weeks away and we were still learning new material! More than that I had a lot of doctors appointments scheduled that were taking valuable time away.
On the rehearsal side of things, that night was long. First was a few hours of Glee Club and then a few of Choral Society. The intensity was increased due to two upcoming gigs for Glee, an hour long holiday concert at Penn and then a high profile one elsewhere. The Choral Society concert was also that week and so three rehearsals and the show were scheduled. More than that, the Penn Pipers had new repertoire for us to learn for both Glee Gigs and two of our own over the weekend.
After a really long day, and a night of rehearsal, project work took me till about 3AM. After that I couldn’t work anymore and fell asleep at my desk.
The next morning everyone woke up really late. I came downstairs at around eleven for breakfast with Sarah, Moe and Ariella while everyone else remained asleep. Breakfast was delicious bagels with lox and cream cheese. Eventually (almost) everyone in the house woke up, including Ben, who wanted to make a decent start on getting hope. Unfortunately for him Lily was still asleep.
After a while of chilling in the lounge, a bedraggled Lily came down the stairs. The majority of the words out of her mouth seemed to involve the word ‘coffee’. However, her collapsed state on the couch prevented her from making moves to rectify her caffeine deficiency. Eventually she recovered, and Ben inquired as to when they would be leaving. Lily and I caught each others eyes for a moment, from which I understood that the leaving wouldn’t be happening any time soon. Lily played on ‘Carlotta’, her ukuleke for a while, while Dani, Ben and I sat on the couch. Soon Dani left for coffee with a friend and wasn’t seen till much later.
The rest of the afternoon was spent between my algorithms textbook and in conversation with Moe and Lily alternately. As the day wore on, Ben became increasingly impatient to get home and do important things, and Lily gave us more and more exasperated looks as her strategies to delay him started to wear out. Just before Shabbat came out, Ben gave one final push and despite her efforts to stay longer, Lily was defeated.
With the two Gamse’s gone, the house was notably quieter. After Shabbat came out, we ordered Chinese take-away food (or ‘take-out’ as they call it here) and then afterwards I sat down to work again. The break was fairly productive but in my mind, should’ve been much longer.
The next day was the last of the break, and I woke up late for the final time. Ate breakfast, read some more, and soon it was time to leave. I thanked Sarah and Bob for their hospitality and hopped in the back for our ride back to Philly. Thankfully there was no rehearsal that evening, so after a bit more work and some food, I tucked myself into bed, attempting to get ready for what would be a really intense week.
I slept in late the next day after working hard the previous night. When I woke up I tackled another chapter of my algorithms textbook but was soon fast asleep again. Around lunchtime I woke up, had a bite to eat, and then started helping Sarah prepare for the evening’s meal. My primary task was to plate up dessert. I actually had quite an enjoyable time doing so and managed to set out the food in a most acceptable manner. Unfortunately I neglected to take pictures, but you can imagine cookies of different colours fanned out on a multi-layered platter. A little later in the afternoon Moe and Ariella arrived back from a black Friday shopping trip. Ariella had been successful in the purchase of a cut price pair of headphone, but the two of them were otherwise unencumbered.
After another hour or so of prep, it was time to get ready, so I showered and cleaned up my mess a little. Just before I had time to get into nicer clothes, the doorbell rang. Ben and Lily Gamse, Ariella’s step-cousins had arrived. I was soon introduced to them by Dani, and instantly struck it off with the two of them. Lily immediately came off as very jovial and on the bouncier side of things, very talkative and keen to meet people. Her brother Ben was slightly more reserved and a little older, but still an absolute pleasure to talk to. Seeing the two of them together and being so close made me miss my brothers Adi and Raph a lot, and caused me to look forward to a few weeks time when I would be home with them again for a few weeks. Shabbat came in soon, along with a slew of other guests, notably another young adult cousin Sarah, who was studying political science up in Vermont and Bob’s son Connor who I didn’t have the chance to get to know so well.
Dinner was really fantastic. Delicious food. Probably amongst the top two meals I had eaten since leaving home. Not only that, but having a crowd of friendly twenty-somethings up my end of the table meant I had a really great time talking to them. ‘King’ David, Ariella’s brother was in a great mood too, and all in all it seemed like we were having a better time than most of the adults. After a few hours, dinner died down a little and a few of us when over to the couches to chat for a while. Once most of the guests had left, Lily and Ben (who were staying the night), and Dani, decided to go to a bar to meet with a friend of hers. Predictably Moe, Ariella and I stayed home. For the next hour and a half, I tried to read more of my textbook, actually getting through a chunk.
At around midnight, Dani, Ben and Lily returned home. Every came downstairs again for a snack and noticed Sarah asleep next to Felafel and Peppers, their two Beagles. Apparently the temptation of a nap with the beloved dogs was a little too much! Similarly, Bob was asleep on a nearby couch. After most everyone headed to bed, Lily and I stayed up to chat for another hour and a bit, before both of us finally retired. I was enthused to have had such a wonderful evening and met so many people. I also really appreciated I had somewhere to go for thanksgiving with people who treated me as part of the family.
With my backpack on my shoulder and Ariella beside me, we walked over to 39th and Walnut where her sister, Dani was waiting with her car. The drive was quite enjoyable, Dani had good taste in music and her friend from med-school that she was driving home was really nice. We arrived in the early evening at the Biser-Kravitz-Levine residence in New Jersey. We hung around for a while not doing anything in particular, and then when Sarah came home (Ariella’s mom) we had some dinner and then went shopping for ingredients for Thanksgiving ‘Sheini’. Some of Sarah’s friends unavailable on Thursday night, asked for a second night of Thanksgiving so a second night (‘sheini’ in hebrew) was being hosted at the residence. That night I was up late working on all my assignments, realizing that the due dates were closer than I had previously expected.
The next morning I was up at around 10AM. Got ready, had a nice breakfast and was soon prepared to embark on the four hour drive to Bethesda, Maryland, with Ariella’s family. The drive down felt like it took a while. I listened to Billy Joel, got a tiny bit of work done on my laptop, and napped. It was a welcome respite, having the opportunity to do nothing for a few hours, and though it may have not been the most riveting of car rides, the opportunity to stress less was most welcome.
At around 5.30PM we arrived at Sarah’s family’s home, where celebrations were already underway. Fancy hors d’oeuvres were being served by a Peruvian waiter, kids were running amuck and Turkey symbolism was everywhere. Ariella had made some delicious food for her and I given that the food at the meal itself was not kosher. The meal was a good opportunity to meet some more of her family and hear a little of their history. Sarah was pleased to explain to me all the connections and a bit of back-story behind everyone that helped me to place people. Particularly interesting was the oldest lady at the table, who had made aliyah from Europe (moved to Israel) before the war and had served in the IDF as a driver during the 1948 war. She also wanted to know about my family and how we had come to emigrate.
Following dinner, we drove right back to where we came from. Another good four hours. However with my workload, I couldn’t afford to go straight to sleep, so got to it for another few hours before collapsing.
The next day I woke up around midday, exhausted from the last finish of the previous night’s movie. There was another rehearsal today, in prep for our upcoming high profile gig. Worked for a while in bed, had a delicious vegan lunch, and just took it fairly easy.
Monday the stress returned. Machine Learning was really interesting, focusing on real world machine learning, much of it ‘big data’. Algorithms was particularly intense and with the exam right around the corner, I was getting really nervous. In the evening was regular glee rehearsal (mainly Christmas music), dinner at Hillel and then choral society. choral society was starting to get far more enjoyable as we started singing the music at speed.
Tuesday was noticeably quieter as people started to leave for the thanksgiving break. I had one last class in the morning, physics, which was starting to wind down a little. I worked on my research project for a little. Didn’t make enough progress.
In the late afternoon I headed over to Luke’s for a pre-thanksgiving potluck dinner with the other first year PhDs. However, I had to leave early due to the 8PM Glee Rehearsal.
Glee rehearsal was sadly quiet, with many people having left for the break. Nord our conductor didn’t take it too poorly however, and we were soon singing many of our favourite holiday songs and perhaps dancing around a little too.
Finally Wednesday arrived. No classes, just work, lunch plans and a winter storm. Unfortunately due to the winter storm, my lunch plans that were already rescheduled to then took another hit and were moved further to the last week of semester. This provided me with the opportunity to lounge lazily in bed and work more from there. Even Nadia admitted that it was a pretty lousy day to be getting up.
I had a guiet bite my myself, packed my bags, and headed to Rodin to meet Ariella in order to head to her place for Thanksgiving break.
Friday was scheduled to be busy. Shabbat was due to come in at around 4.20PM and I had a full day planned before. From class in the morning, to a planned lunch with a friend and then Pipers in the early afternoon, I didn’t know when I’d have time to prep. However, after machine learning I received a text that my friend was in fact ill and couldn’t make it, thus we rescheduled for the next week. So too did I receive a message from the Pipers informing me of a rescheduling of our rehearsal to the next day (which I was not pleased about). I ended up using the free time to work a little more and then take a nap, which extended itself well past the hours it was supposed to. I woke up after services and headed to dinner at Hillel. Post people this week were at external meals and so I sat with a few new people which was lovely.
The next day I woke up late but immediately had to go to rehearsal, missing lunch at Hillel. Luckily I had been prepared for this and had bought challot and some grape juice for myself, which I promptly consumed. Rehearsal was fun, and much needed given our concert later that evening with the Brown Derbies, one of their more entertaining all-male acapella groups.
In the afternoon I attended a theatre show put on by Pearl and a company she was managing. It was really well put together and was enjoyable. I then managed a brief nap and a quick dinner before helping to prepare for our evening’s concert.
Soon the Derbies arrived and we started our show. First the Pipers performed a set of some mixed light barbershop and a few 70s pop tunes. Then the Derbies performed a very high energy set of more typical modern acapella. Finally, the Pipers closed off with another set of barbershop and close harmony singing.
From Penn Dance, Schmush, Avalon, Lainie and Kendra all came along to support us. Talking to them after the show Avalon mentioned that she was going to see the latest Hunger Games movie, and invited Bhavish and I along. I thought it was a nice opportunity to get to know both of them a little better and was eager to do so.
I rushed home to get changed, stopped off quickly at the Glouse, and then met Avalon at the theater. Unfortunately all the tickets to the 10:30PM screening were sold, and so after ‘umming and ahhing’ for a little, we decide to wait an hour and see the 11:30 screening instead. We purchased our tickets, and had a good hour to kill, so we walked to the Glouse to give Bhavish his ticket. Bhavish unbeknownst to us, had decided to stay in and work, and so when we arrived he wasn’t there. We ended up chilling for an hour, and almost went to a bar, but then realized we were low on time for it and so walked back to the theatre.
This was a great chance to get to know Avalon a bit better as Bhavish didn’t show up until just before the movie started. And so, I got to tell her my favorite story about how I came to be at Penn. Bhavish eventually arrived, and showed us a few of his magic tricks, which were superb as always and impressed both Avalon and I (though I had seen them before). The movie itself was fine, not spectacular but fun and probably worth seeing. We all walked back to Harrison together, and then I had the luxury of a deep sleep.
Wednesday was a mad rush to get enough homework done. Normal onslaught of classes. Crypto has been good recently in that I’m starting to understand some of the abstract algebra underlying the harder bits. Wednesday night was the usual rehearsal and work combo.
Thursday was back to Physics and an attempt to be productive. My interest in the physics died down a little this week as we were focused mainly on computing some coefficients I didn’t have too much interest in (Clebsch-Gordan). However, Thursday night was a little different. I ended up chatting to Nadia in the lab till quite late, and then pretty much ran back to my room to get dressed. I donned my 70s style shirt, binary tie, pants and jacket and walked to the Radian to accompany Natalie Eisner to drinks before Glee Club and Penn Dance’s annual semi formal.
Drinks were at Jane Dobkin’s place with the Junior class (and the lone grad student!) It was a nice chance to actually get to talk a little more with a number of them with whom until that point I’d had limited interaction.
Following that, I and a few of the PD girls and their dates caught the SEPTA (south eastern pennsylvanian public transit authority) train to Pulse Bar, Center City where our function was being held. For once I actually spent the largest chunk on the dance floor, and though it was not my regular choice of environs I managed to have quite a good time. One further point of note was that there were three Australians present! The other two being the dates of Katrina and Arjun respectively.
At just past midnight Natalie and I cabbed home and then I promptly went to sleep before my 9AM machine learning class.