Gus Simmons’s Memoir

Gus Simmons is an early pioneer in cryptography and computer security. I know him best for his work on authentication and covert channels, specifically as related to nuclear treaty verification. His work is cited extensively in Applied Cryptography.

He has written a memoir of growing up dirt-poor in 1930s rural West Virginia. I’m in the middle of reading it, and it’s fascinating.

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Posted on March 25, 2022 at 6:14 AM13 Comments


Clive Robinson March 25, 2022 7:54 AM

@ Bruce,

He has written a memoir of growing up dirt-poor in 1930s rural West Virginia. I’m in the middle of reading it, and it’s fascinating.

I’ve heard stories about Gus, and they add a dimensionality to him that was not apparent from the normal sources.

Hopefully some of them will have made it into the book…

I guess one to add to the slowly diminishing pile I have to finish.

As Cisero observed,

A home without books is a body without soul.

And I feel,

“A bed without a pile of books beside, is not being comfortable”

Oh and where would you balance the cup of tea?

Ted March 25, 2022 8:18 AM

What is it about stories, and especially personal stories, that resonates so much with people? I was reading/listening to a few books and it’s odd how spell-binding narratives can be. I usually pick-up the non-fiction ones.

I read just a few pages of Gus’ early childhood memoir so far. Dare I say how disarming and enjoyable his down-to-earth style is? Thankee, thankee, thankee for sharing! Sounds so much like my family from the midwest. Looks like an unexpectedly authentic and memorable read!!

Lewis March 25, 2022 9:50 AM

Ted says: “What is it about stories”

yeah, many people luv “stories”, but many do not. Personalities are of little real importance to society — their significant accomplishments are.

Like 99.9% of people, i never heard of Gus or his work, but he sounds like an admirable person.
Growing up poor during the Great Depression was very commonplace, but somehow seems exotic and unusual to many comfortable Americans now.
Who wrote the books that Gus luved and learned from (?) … but those facts would just detract from the entertaining “story” being offered.

Peter A. March 25, 2022 10:11 AM

We, humans, are made of stories. Evening, fire and an elderly member of the tribe telling a story… this goes on for tens of thousands of years already. The three components mentioned tend to be replaced by somewhat different things over last two centuries, but the overall mechanism stays.

I’ve just sampled a bit of Gus’ verbal moonshine… it’s good, very good. A little depressing, somewhat bitter story from the old, wild, wild West – but with a pinch of heart-lightening secret ingredient. Quite different from the depressing stories from the old wild, wild East of similar timeframe I tend to read recently…

@Clive & Cicero ;-P
You’re both right – but one needs a certain legacy for that. In some homes, reading is almost a sacred activity. In others, it’s plain waste of time. How many times I have heard: “What?! You’re reading again?”

Another thought – the media change, the stories stay. Oral, hand-written, mass-printed, now e-something.

ResearcherZero March 25, 2022 12:10 PM

The personal stories were always way better than the jokes about the NKVD.

“You mean the MGB”

“No, the KGB!”

“In my day they were the OGPU.”

Terry Cloth March 25, 2022 12:18 PM

Can anyone supply the ISBN? I’ve checked three sources (including Amazon) and searching for “Gustavus Simmons” turns up a number of his books, but not this one.

Ed Hurst March 25, 2022 12:49 PM

@ Terry Cloth

The linked PDF has ISBN: 978-0-578-33869-9. However, I can’t find any listing for it that way. The PDF linked at the page Bruce links to appears to be the only way to get a copy.

Frank Wilhoit March 25, 2022 4:31 PM

“What is it about…stories, that resonates so much…”
“…many people luv “stories”, but many do not…”
“We, humans, are made of stories….the media change, the stories stay….”

It is not about “stories good” versus “stories bad”. It is about the ability to distinguish between stories and other categories of discourse. By all evidence, that ability has today been severely degraded, almost to nonexistence, and that is a problem.

The category error of mistaking stories for rational discourse leads to the imputation of “lying”, expressing an experience of betrayal, leading to bitterness and vengefulness; whereas stories are neither true or false.

All of this imputes inherent toxicity to stories in general and in particular to storytellers, when the category error is being made by the audience.

Ted March 25, 2022 10:33 PM

@Peter A.

So true @Peter. The format of the book is great because it’s basically 30 short stories. ‘Checksum’ jumped out at me, so I started there. It’s kind of a funny title now that I think about it.

According to Gus, one third of the adults around Frog’s Creek in West Virginia in the 1930’s were illiterate.

“They could neither read ner cipher”, where cipher had nothing to do with cryptography, but meant simply the ability to do arithmetic.

Having just learned how to do Sudoku puzzles, I am sympathetic. These puzzles don’t require arithmetic, but they do have numbers. And you do sort of have to organize them.

Gus and his father had both helped read things to people who couldn’t read. The memoir’s title “Another Time, Another Place, Another Story” is so fitting for a richly-observed life within a life.

Does anyone else have a story they liked?

Peter Shenkin March 26, 2022 11:16 PM

I’m loving the book. I want to know what happened to Hettie (pp 134-145) in later life.

RealFakeNews March 28, 2022 2:24 PM

Who wrote the books that Gus luved and learned from (?)

Indeed. There are many people of whom I’d like to know where they learned what they did to then be able to do what they did.

I get bored by people’s personal stories, beyond the outline of the path that helped them to get to where they got to and the reason it is I’m hearing of them in the first place.

For some people (particularly of mathematics and theoretical physics) it was simply their brain structure that enabled them to “see” more than mere mortals who could spend a lifetime researching a subject and still fail to create anything ground-breaking from it.

The greatest pioneers aren’t taught; they are born.

Petre Peter March 30, 2022 11:49 AM

I’ve never heard of Gus before this post but I really enjoyed reading the book. “Hard times make hard men.”
Thank you for sharing Professor Schneier.

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