(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘code

“One of the most singular characteristics of the art of deciphering is the strong conviction possessed by every person, even moderately acquainted with it, that he is able to construct a cipher which nobody else can decipher.”*…

And yet, for centuries no one has succeeded. Now, as Erica Klarreich reports, cryptographers want to know which of five possible worlds we inhabit, which will reveal whether truly secure cryptography is even possible…

Many computer scientists focus on overcoming hard computational problems. But there’s one area of computer science in which hardness is an asset: cryptography, where you want hard obstacles between your adversaries and your secrets.

Unfortunately, we don’t know whether secure cryptography truly exists. Over millennia, people have created ciphers that seemed unbreakable right until they were broken. Today, our internet transactions and state secrets are guarded by encryption methods that seem secure but could conceivably fail at any moment.

To create a truly secure (and permanent) encryption method, we need a computational problem that’s hard enough to create a provably insurmountable barrier for adversaries. We know of many computational problems that seem hard, but maybe we just haven’t been clever enough to solve them. Or maybe some of them are hard, but their hardness isn’t of a kind that lends itself to secure encryption. Fundamentally, cryptographers wonder: Is there enough hardness in the universe to make cryptography possible?

In 1995, Russell Impagliazzo of the University of California, San Diego broke down the question of hardness into a set of sub-questions that computer scientists could tackle one piece at a time. To summarize the state of knowledge in this area, he described five possible worlds — fancifully named Algorithmica, Heuristica, Pessiland, Minicrypt and Cryptomania — with ascending levels of hardness and cryptographic possibility. Any of these could be the world we live in…

Explore each of them– and their implications for secure encryption– at “Which Computational Universe Do We Live In?” from @EricaKlarreich in @QuantaMagazine.

Charles Babbage

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As we contemplate codes, we might we might send communicative birthday greetings to a frequentlyfeatured hero of your correspondent, Claude Elwood Shannon; he was born on this date in 1916.  A mathematician, electrical engineer– and cryptographer– he is known as “the father of information theory.”  But he is also remembered for his contributions to digital circuit design theory and for his cryptanalysis work during World War II, both as a codebreaker and as a designer of secure communications systems.

220px-ClaudeShannon_MFO3807

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“It may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve”*…

But sometimes it takes lots of ingenuity… and often, a great deal of time…

The United States National Security Agency—the country’s premier signals intelligence organization—recently declassified a Cold War-era document about code-breaking.

The 1977 book, written by cryptologist Lambros Callimahos, is the last in a trilogy called Military Cryptanalytics. It’s significant in the history of cryptography, as it explains how to break all types of codes, including military codes, or puzzles—which are created solely for the purpose of a challenge.

The first two parts of the trilogy were published publicly in the 1980s and covered solving well-known types of classical cipher. But in 1992, the US Justice Department claimed releasing the third book could harm national security by revealing the NSA’s “code-breaking prowess“. It was finally released in December last year. 

A key part of Callimahos’s book is a chapter titled Principles of Cryptodiagnosis, which describes a systematic three-step approach to solving a message encrypted using an unknown method… 

See how those three steps work at “Declassified Cold War code-breaking manual has lessons for solving ‘impossible’ puzzles.”

* Edgar Allan Poe

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As we ponder puzzles, we might send intelligent birthday greetings to Alfred Binet; he was born on this date in 1857. A psychologist, he invented the first practical IQ test, the Binet–Simon test (in response to a request from the French Ministry of Education to devise a method to identify students needing remedial help).

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“Curiosity has its own reason for existence”*…

 

The Voynich Manuscript is a special kind of original. We know, thanks to carbon dating, that it was put together in the early fifteenth century. But no living person has ever, as far as we know, understood it. Nobody can decode the language the book is written in…  In “Cryptographic Attempts,” another essay that accompanies the Yale facsimile, William Sherman notes that “some of the greatest code breakers in history” attempted to unlock the manuscript’s mysteries; the impenetrability of Voynichese became a professional problem for those in the code game…

Humans are fond of weaving narratives like doilies around gaping holes, so that the holes won’t scare them. And objects from premodern history—like medieval manuscripts—are the perfect canvas on which to project our worries about the difficult and the frightening and the arcane, because these objects come from a time outside culture as we conceive of it. This single, original manuscript encourages us to sit with the concept of truth and to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know.

The story in its impenetrable– but fascinating– whole at “The Unsolveable Mysteries of the Voynich Manuscript.”

* Albert Einstein

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As we muse on mysteries, we might send bucolic birthday wishes to Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (née Cary), the naturalist and educator who was the co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College; she was born on this date in 1822.  After the death of her husband, Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, with whom she traveled on scientific expeditions, she settled on the idea of college for women in the “Harvard Annex” in Cambridge; in 1894 the Annex became Radcliffe College. She served as its president until 1899, then honorary president until 1903.  Her books include A First Lesson in Natural History (1859), and A Journey in Brazil (1867).

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 5, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds is, in my opinion, conversation”*…

 

In this age of Alexa and Siri, it’s worth recalling the (long) history of human-machine conversation.  At MIT in 1966 an experiment with an early form of artificial intelligence anticipated just how close we might grow with our machines…

Client: Men are all alike.

ELIZA (a computer): In what way

Client: They’re always bugging us about something or other.

ELIZA: Can you think of a specific example

Client: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

ELIZA: Your boyfriend made you come here

Client: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

ELIZA: I am sorry to hear you are depressed

Client: It’s true. I am unhappy.

ELIZA: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy

Client: I need some help, that much seems certain.

– Joseph Weizenbaum, from a transcription of “Computational Linguistics.”

Named after George Bernard Shaw’s ingénue in Pygmalion, the ELIZA program operated on the Project MAC computer system at MIT and made natural language exchange possible between man and machine. ELIZA identified key words and phrases and responded with rote answers that simulated a conversation.

Talking Cure,” via Lapham’s Quarterly.

* Michel de Montaigne, The Essays

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As we lie back on the couch, we might note that it was on this date in 1928 that the Enigma Machine encoded its first message.

A simple German machine the size of a portable typewriter, ENIGMA allowed for security in communications by a process in which typed letters were replaced by a cipher text displayed on illuminated lamps. The cipher was symmetrical so entering the cipher text into another ENIGMA reproduced the original message. Security was provided by a set of rotor wheels and a series of patch cables whose arrangement was agreed upon previously.

ENIGMA was used extensively by the German military during World War II to transmit battle plans and other secret information. By December of 1941, however, British codebreakers managed to decipher the code, allowing them to routinely read most ENIGMA traffic.

[source- Computer History Museum]

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 15, 2016 at 1:01 am

“‘Meow’ means ‘woof’ in cat”*…

 

In cliff-side houses like these, some Malian villagers speak an enigmatic anti-language originally designed to fool slave-traders

Criminals, conspirators, fugitives, outcasts– throughout history, they’ve all often spoken “The secret ‘anti-languages’ you’re not supposed to know.

[Update:  further to “I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after ‘semicolons,’ and another one after ‘now’*…,” this wonderful variation, via @PhelimKine]

* George Carlin

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As we watch our tongues, we might send breath-taking birthday greetings to the man who spoke the secret language of the environment, Ansel Easton Adams; he was born on this date in 1902.  A co-founder of Group f/64 (with other masters like Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, and Imogen Cunningham), his black-and-white landscape photographs of the American West, especially Yosemite National Park, helped define landscape photography and establish photography as a fine art.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 20, 2016 at 1:01 am

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