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Posts Tagged ‘cryptography

“Secret codes resound. Doubts and intentions come to light.”*…


Music cryptography is a method in which the musical notes A through G are used to spell out words, abbreviations, or codes…

Early 17th- and 18th-century mathematicians and cryptologists such as John Wilkins and Philip Thicknesse argued that music cryptography was one of the most inscrutable ways of transporting secret messages. They claimed that music was perfect camouflage, because spies would never suspect music. When played, the music would sound so much like any other composition that musically trained listeners would be easily fooled, too. Thicknesse wrote in his 1772 book A Treatise on the Art of Deciphering, and of Writing in Cypher: With an Harmonic Alphabet, “for who that examined a suspected messenger would think an old song, without words, in which perhaps the messenger’s tobacco or snuff might be put, contained a secret he was to convey?” Written letters don’t have this advantage…

This music cipher was supposedly proposed by Michael Haydn (brother of Franz Josef Haydn). It appears in an appendix to a biography about Haydn by Werigand Rettensteiner published in 1808.

More musical mischief at “With Musical Cryptography, Composers Can Hide Messages in Their Melodies.”

* Wislawa Szymborska


As we bury the lede, we might tip the plumed birthday bonnet to Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who thought and therefore was.  He was born on this date in 1596.

Many contemporaries (perhaps most notably, Pascal) rejected his famous conclusion, the dualist separation of mind and body; more (Voltaire, et al.), since.  But Descartes’ emphasis on method and analysis, his disciplined integration of philosophy and physical science, his insistence on the importance of consciousness in epistemology, and perhaps most fundamentally, his the questioning of tradition and authority had a transformative– and lasting– effect on Western thought, and has earned him the “title” of Father of Modern Philosophy.

“In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate.”
– Rene Descartes

Frans Hals’ portrait of Descartes, c. 1649


Written by LW

March 31, 2018 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


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]



Written by LW

July 15, 2016 at 1:01 am

Coded references…

Readers will recall the role that Alan Turing and the team at Bletchley Park played in cracking the German Enigma code; some analysts and historians reckon that their work may have shortened World War Two by “not less than two years.”

That code was generated by– and thus cracking it turned on deconstructing and understanding– an Enigma Machine.


Understandably, there were few such machines ever built.  And equally understandable, those that survive are extremely expensive collectables.  But readers need fear not!  Now, thanks to our friends at Instructables, one can convert a “Kid’s Game to an Enigma Machine“:

Step-by-step instructions at Instructables.

Readers might also want to visit Cabinet Magazine‘s wonderful “How to Make Anything Signify Anything,” a profile of American code breaker (and code maker) William Friedman:

By the time he retired from the National Security Agency in 1955, Friedman had served for more than thirty years as his government’s chief cryptographer, and—as leader of the team that broke the Japanese PURPLE code in World War II, co-inventor of the US Army’s best cipher machine, author of the papers that gave the field its mathematical foundations, and coiner of the very term cryptanalysis—he had arguably become the most important code-breaker in modern history.

As we reach for our decoder rings, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884 that the states of Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, with (at least) 50 tornadoes.  Known as “The Enigma Outbreak,” it did an estimated a total of $3–4 million in tornado damage (in 1884 dollars; plus an unknown amount of flood and other damage), destroying over 10,000 structures.

Photo: © D. Burgess / NOAA (source)



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