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Posts Tagged ‘code

“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 LW

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 LW

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 LW

February 20, 2016 at 1:01 am

“You don’t have to be a mathematician to have a feel for numbers”*…

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For more than 45 years, the Shortwave radio spectrum has been used by the world’s intelligence agencies to transmit secret messages. These messages are transmitted by hundreds of “Numbers Stations.”

Shortwave Numbers Stations are a perfect method of anonymous, one way communication. Spies located anywhere in the world can be communicated to by their masters via small, locally available, and unmodified Shortwave receivers. The encryption system used by Numbers Stations, known as a “one time pad” is unbreakable. Combine this with the fact that it is almost impossible to track down the message recipients once they are inserted into the enemy country, it becomes clear just how powerful the Numbers Station system is.

These stations use very rigid schedules, and transmit in many different languages, employing male and female voices repeating strings of numbers or phonetic letters day and night, all year round. The voices are of varying pitches and intonation; there is even a German station ‘The Swedish Rhapsody’ that transmitted a female child’s voice!

One might think that these espionage activities should have wound down considerably since the official “end of the Cold War”, but nothing could be further from the truth. Numbers Stations, and by inference, spies, are as busy as ever, with many new and bizarre stations appearing since the fall of the Berlin wall…

Read more at The Conet Project— and listen to samples (including the Swedish Rhapsody girl) at Internet Archive.

* John Forbes Nash, Jr.

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As we put away our one-time pads, we might recall that it was on this date in 1892 that Jesse Reno was awarded U. S. Patent 47091815 for “Endless Conveyer or Elevator.”  It was built and opened in September, 1895 as a Coney Island amusement ride, a conveyor belt that moved people up a 25 degree slope.  (An earlier escalator-type patent was issued in the U.S. in August, 1859 to Nathan Ames. [No. 25,076], for an apparatus with steps mounted on an inclined endless belt or chain, but it was never built.)  The Otis Elevator Company manufactured their first escalator in 1900;  they exhibited it at the Paris Exposition in that year, and then installed it at the Gimbal Brothers store in Philadelphia in 1901. Otis registered the U.S. trademark Escalator in May, 1901, and later bought Reno’s company.

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Written by LW

March 15, 2014 at 1:01 am

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