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Be prepared

Louis Pasteur said that, "Fortune favours the prepared mind".

But in undertaking my Parliamentary duties in Edinburgh, in the constituency or elsewhere, each activity requires preparation. Sometimes that preparation is a quick read of a note prepared by my staff who do much of the heavy-lifting that keeps the Stevenson show on the road. But much has to be personal. The first hour of the day when I read a variety of news media is my filling the brain with things to say when the question requiring an answer is one not previously anticipated.

But day to day preparation is a small part of preparation. Ron Rivest was the mathematician in a group of three who developed a viable public key cryptography system. What does that mean? Does it matter you might say?

Basically, it allows important, particularly financial, information to travel across the public internet without being either read or modified by anyone other than the intended recipient. When I say public internet, a comparison might be in order. You are at a major sporting event You are part of a crowd of some 50,000 spectators. It's noisy as supporters cheer on their team.

You see a pal some 50 yards away and shout loudly, a brief message to them. They hear you above the hubbub and shout a reply, or perhaps gesture a response. Either way, hundreds of people have heard or seen the exchange. The public internet is similar. Anyone can see that a conversation is taking place and, if it is not protected by cryptography, read the contents. So that's why we need secure communication.

Rivest and his colleagues Shamir and Adleman developed the system after several year's efforts. It took many years of preparation for these three to be equipped to solve this problem.

And yet it ended up taking no time at all. They had been at a student party and retired modestly "refreshed". Ron Rivest had a restless night and knawed away at the problem they had been working on for several years. He reckoned he'd found the answer. And walked downstairs for breakfast only to find on reaching the kitchen that he had forgotten it. Hoping for the best, he went back to his bedroom.

I guess many of us have done this. He then found that he could find the answer in his mind. He sat down and wrote the complete solution on a single sheet of A4. Actually, that's wrong. It must be the US rough equivalent of A4. But you get the point.

It took him about 30 minutes to do but a lifetime of preparation.

The trouble is that we don't know what part of the knowledge we have acquired over the years will be useful. That's why there is an intrinsic value in keeping reading each and every day.

But it is not just acquiring knowledge that matters. Preparation for eventualities that are foreseeable also matters. I remember an occasion when a pal and I flew an aircraft from Edinburgh to Stapleford. That's an airfield, quite a big airfield, but filled with small aircraft. It lies south of Luton and Stansted airport.

Were you to look at an aviation chart you would that airspace reserved for the use of these two airfields only leaves a corridor about a mile wide and 2,000 feet high through which we would have to fly to avoid their airspace. And to make things even more difficult, there were three sharp turns necessary to stay on track. It was far from being a straight line. Lastly, there were no radio navigation aids to assist.

Now in practice, air traffic controllers at big airfields will be quite helpful and allow flights through their airspace. But it is entirely at their discretion, and one cannot safely assume that they will be able to help.

My pal and I spent several sessions checking the approximately 25 miles we would have to fly in that area. Went OK. And when the Stansted controller saw we were behaving ourselves, they offered a straight line across their main runway. But without preparation, we could have found ourselves being invited to fly north rather than being allowed to continue to Stapleford.

In politics, the principles of preparation, knowledge acquisition and development of practical plans are equally important.

Indeed, walking round to the other side of the table to ask oneself the questions that an opponent might come up with is a vital preparation.

When I took the 2009 Climate Change Act through our Parliament, the final stage took a day in the debating chamber. I ended up speaking for about two hours, twenty minutes in total. The papers sitting on my desk were in three very fat folders standing nearly a foot high. It took three days to read them and embed knowledge of their structure in my mind and ensure that the essentials were readily retrievable.

As a minority government with 47 members facing 81 opposition MSPs, we didn't win every vote. But our preparation meant we won the votes we needed to.

Preparation and the building of contingency also work in one's personal life. My spouse intended to travel today by train from Linlithgow to a much-anticipated rendevous with her hairdresser. She went to the station for a train 30 minutes earlier than the one she could have caught. Alas; no trains. The collapse of a canal bank had closed the rail service.

Because she had built in extra time, alternative travel was possible.

I spent many of my younger years in the Cubs and then the Boy Scouts. I have spent years under canvass in consequence and acquired some basic cooking skills. In this context, I remind myself that the motto of the Scouts is - Be Prepared.


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