Sunday, April 23, 2006

O to be a cryptologist now that spring is here

I just found out from the NYT science section that there's an encrypted sculpture on the grounds of the CIA building, about 45 minutes from here. Of course I got really excited and wanted to go see it immediately, but apparently it's not open to the public. Curses! How can you make something so cool and then restrict it to people who work for the government?

Anyway, the Times reported that the sculpture's designer has piped up to correct some of the codebreakers on an error that was throwing them off the scent. Here's how weird the cipher is: the correction turned the string "IDBYROWS" into "LEVELTWO." If you want to see how the ciphers work, you should check out the exhaustive website Realm of Twelve, which manages to catalogue all the existing solutions (three of the four sections have been decrypted) without compromising the sculpture's occultness.

I'm not much of a cryptologist; I'm lousy at math and I don't exactly break codes in my head. But I love puzzles -- you should have seen me when the Notpron riddle was big. (Seen me, but not tried to talk to me.) So while I don't have any illusions that I could help translate this, I would love to go see it. Just to bask in the mystery and be generally creeped out.

Plus, part of the sculpture is in Morse, and that I can read. And can quibble with cryptologists on: the guy at Realm of Twelve writes that "the obvious perception might yield readable results, but this does not exclude the possibility that the Morse could or should be viewed upside down or from a reflected surface," but I started reading it backwards, which is the same as upside down, and it comes up short on the first C. C isn't a valid character backwards. This doesn't mean that it couldn't have another meaning if you broke up the characters differently, like turning the "vir" from "virtual" (···- ·· ·-·) into "steer" (··· - · · ·-·). Parts of the sequence are palindromic -- the "erpre" in "interpretati," the "visib" in "invisible" -- for whatever that's worth.

You can see how much I like this stuff -- not actual high-level codebreaking, which I'm usually not smart enough for, but contemplating objects with a hidden meaning. I mean, I once travelled to New York just to see one of the original copies of Agrippa, and it's not like I was able to touch it or open it and look inside. I just like it. I like being around things like this. I think it's because I'm far too informed and pragmatic to have any kind of sense of spirituality; really good puzzles are the closest I get to mystical objects.

But actually, only being able to access the sculpture online has a thrill to it as well. It makes the story seem to straddle the boundaries between fiction and fact -- this could almost as easily be an Eco-esque story as a real construction of copper and petrified wood. (This is only helped along by the fact that the Realm of Twelve webmaster seems to have mystical leanings.) One of my favorite hypertext authors, Shelley Jackson, recently said in a talk that she considers ambiguous nonfiction to be the new territory of online literature -- we're so used to looking for fact online that factlike fiction has the potential to be much more striking and a better use of the medium. (For an example, see the really chilling story "Revelation of the Lamb in Four Parts" on Everything2.) Of course this is fictionlike fact, but it's the same liminal space and I like it.

All right, I know this has been kind of starry-eyed and Englishy, but it's a beautiful Sunday and I've had a bike ride and a shower and there's imminent steak and zucchini and I don't really feel like railing on IDers. Back to your usual cynical science tomorrow.


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