Alas, this weekend I became engrossed by the “OJ Simpson trial for nerds”: the ongoing trial of Hans Reiser (the famous Linux file system developer and supposedly-brilliant high-school accelerant) for the murder of his ex-wife Nina. What makes the case interesting is that Reiser’s defense largely consists of the claim that he was too nerdy and Aspbergerish, too lacking in basic social skills, to realize that doing innocuous things in the weeks following Nina’s disappearance like
- removing the passenger seat of his car, soaking the floorboards, and hiding the car several miles from his house,
- not returning calls from numerous friends and family members searching for his ex-wife (except to tell one that he needed to talk to his lawyer),
- hiding his hard disks, and
- telling his mother (in a wiretapped phone conversation) why he was happy his ex-wife went missing
might lead non-nerds to suspect he was guilty.
Like the “Twinkie defense,” Reiser’s “nerd defense” is an invitation to parody. But my feeling is that in this case, even the “nerd” characterization of Reiser itself is open to question. For one thing, Reiser has a blackbelt in judo and appears to have been obsessed with cultivating physical aggressiveness, both in himself and in his eight-year-old son. For another, it seems the reason he was able to attract Nina in the first place was his swaggering confidence. So while portraying Reiser as a nerdy nebbish might be convenient both for journalists and for Reiser’s defense team, he seems to me to be much closer to an aggressive narcissist.
(Of course that doesn’t imply he’s guilty. But I have to say that, thus far in the trial, Reiser and his defense lawyer have done an excellent job of convincing me that he is. Certainly the defense theory — that in an elaborate frame-up of Hans, Nina suddenly abandoned her two children, friends, and new job, left her car by the side of the road with the groceries to rot in the back, and went into hiding in an unspecified former Soviet state with a fake identity and passport — is difficult for a sane person to accept. And unfortunately for Hans, the fact that Nina was far from a perfect specimen of humanity — sleeping with Hans’s best friend, embezzling his company’s money, and divorcing him as soon as she got her US citizenship — only adds to the prima facie likelihood that her body is currently rotting somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas.)
On the other hand, Reiser was certainly wise to hide his hard disks rather than relying on disk encryption. For this week a team of nine researchers at Princeton and elsewhere — including my friends Alex Halderman and Nadia Heninger — released a paper showing how to take a DRAM chip out of one computer, put it into another computer, and read its contents even though the chip had no power in the interim. (One hint: use canned-air spray dusters as a cheap alternative to liquid nitrogen for “cryopreserving” the chip.) The story made it to the Science Times, although they failed to mention most of the authors by name.
But, you ask, how else have I been procrastinating this weekend? Ah. Peter Woit links to a remarkable set of oral histories from people who were involved with the Princeton math department in the 1930′s. Read Alonzo Church (he of the Church-Turing Thesis) list his graduate students and forget to mention Alan Turing, and Nathan Jacobson talk about the disgusting food that Mrs. Einstein would bring to department receptions. In the midst of possibly the greatest concentration of intellect the world has ever seen or will see, and on the eve of perhaps the greatest calamity the world has ever seen, what is it that people worried about? The oak paneling in Fine Hall, and other trivialities completely different from the sorts of things we academics would worry about today.
Oh right: at the behest of you, my loyal readers, I’m now more than halfway through Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep, an entertaining novel that depicts a far future with malevolent AI beings, faster-than-light travel, and (possibly the nerdiest science-fiction premise of all time) Usenet newsgroups spanning the galaxy, whose flamewars play a major role in the rise and fall of civilizations. Vinge’s estimate of how much longer Usenet would stay relevant was off by a factor of only about 10,000.