Craig Bauer on unsolved ciphers

In 1953, a man was found dead from cyanide poisoning near the Philadelphia airport with a picture of a Nazi aircraft in his wallet. Taped to his abdomen was an enciphered message. In 1912, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich came into possession of an illuminated cipher manuscript once belonging to Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy and the occult. Wartime codebreakers tried—and failed—to unlock the book’s secrets, and it remains an enigma to this day. In Unsolved, Craig Bauer examines these and other vexing ciphers yet to be cracked. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Why focus on unsolved ciphers?

They’re much more intriguing because they could be concealing anything. Some might reveal the identities of serial killers. Others could unmask spies, rewrite history, expose secret societies, or even give the location of buried treasure worth millions. This sense of mystery is very appealing to me.

Did you try to solve the ciphers yourself first?

There are so many unsolved ciphers that I realized I would never finish writing about them if I kept stopping to try to solve them. There’s one that I’m confident I could solve, but instead of doing so, I simply presented the approach I think will work and am leaving it for a reader to pursue. I expect that several of them will be solved by readers and I look forward to seeing their results!

Does someone who wants to attack these mysteries need to know a lot of mathematics or have computer programming skills?

No. Many of the ciphers were created by people with very little knowledge in either area. Also, past solvers of important ciphers have included amateurs. One of the Zodiac killer’s ciphers was solved by a high school history teacher. Some of the ciphers might be solved in a manner that completely bypasses mathematics. A reader may find a solution through papers the cipher’s creator left behind, perhaps in some library’s archives, in government storage, or in a relative’s possession. I think some may be solved by pursuing a paper trail or some other non-mathematical avenue. Of course, there are mathematical challenges as well, for those who have the skills to take them on. The puzzles span thousands of years, from ancient Egypt to today’s online community. Twentieth century challenges come from people as diverse as Richard Feynman (a world-class physicist) and Ricky McCormick (thought to have been illiterate).

Are all of the unsolved ciphers covered in the book?

No, far from it. There are enough unsolved ciphers to fill many volumes. I limited myself to only the most interesting examples, and still there were too many! I originally set out to write a book about half the size of what was ultimately published. The problem was that there was so much fascinating material that I had to go to 600 pages or experience the agony of omitting something fabulous. Also, unsolved ciphers from various eras are constantly coming to light, and new ones are created every year. I will likely return to the topic with a sequel covering the best of these.

Which cipher is your favorite?

I’m the most excited about the Paul Rubin case. It involves a cipher found taped to the abdomen of a teenage whiz-kid who was found dead in a ditch by the Philadelphia airport, way back in 1953. While I like well-known unsolved ciphers like the Voynich Manuscript and Kryptos, I have higher hopes for this one being solved because it hasn’t attracted any attention since the 1950s. The codebreakers have made a lot of progress since then, so it’s time to take another look and see what can be learned about this young man’s death. I felt it was very important to include cases that will be new even to those who have read a great deal about cryptology already and this is one such case.

Should the potential reader have some prior knowledge of the subject?

If he or she does, there will still be much that is new, but for those with no previous exposure to cryptology, everything is explained from the ground up. As a teenager I loved books at the popular level on a wide range of topics. In particular, the nonfiction of Isaac Asimov instilled in me a love for many subjects. He always started at the beginning, assuming his readers were smart, but new to the topic he was covering. This is the approach that I have taken. I hope that the book finds a wide readership among the young and inspires them in the same way Asimov inspired me.

Is there anything that especially qualifies you to write on this topic?

Early work on this book was supported by the National Security Agency through their Scholar-in-Residence program at the Center for Cryptologic History. They wanted me in this role because, while I have a PhD in mathematics and have carried out mathematical research in cryptology, I also have a passion for history and other disciplines. In fact, both of my books have the word “history” in their titles. The journal Cryptologia, for which I serve as the editor-in-chief, is devoted to all aspects of cryptology, mathematical, historical, pedagogical, etc. My love of diverse fields allows me to write with enthusiasm about ciphers in music, art, criminal cases, ancient history, and other areas. The broad approach to the subject is more entertaining and ensures that there’s something in the book for nearly every reader.

BauerCraig Bauer is professor of mathematics at York College of Pennsylvania. He is editor in chief of the journal Cryptologia, has served as a scholar in residence at the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History, and is the author of Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.

Brian Kernighan on what we all need to know about computers

KernighanLaptops, tablets, cell phones, and smart watches: computers are inescapable. But even more are invisible, like those in appliances, cars, medical equipment, transportation systems, power grids, and weapons. We never see the myriad computers that quietly collect, share, and sometimes leak vast amounts of personal data about us, and often don’t consider the extent to which governments and companies increasingly monitor what we do. In Understanding the Digital World, Brian W. Kernighan explains, in clear terms, not only how computers and programming work, but also how computers influence our daily lives. Recently, Kernighan answered some questions about his new book.

Who is this book for? What kind of people are most likely to be interested?

BK: It’s a cliché, but it really is aimed at the proverbial “educated layman.” Everyone uses computers and phones for managing their lives and communicating with other people. So the book is for them. I do think that people who have some technical background will enjoy it, but will also find that it will help their less technical friends and family understand.

What’s the basic message of the book?

BK: Computers—laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, gadgets—are all around us. The Internet lets our computers communicate with us and with other computers all over the world. And there are billions of computers in infrastructure that we rely on without even realizing its existence. Computers and communications systems have changed our lives dramatically in the past couple of decades, and will continue to do so. So anyone who hopes to be at least somewhat informed ought to understand the basics of how such things work. One major concern has been the enormous increase in surveillance and a corresponding reduction in our personal privacy. We are under continuous monitoring by government agencies like the NSA in the United States and similar ones in other countries. At the same time, commercial interests track everything we do online and with our phones. Some of this is acceptable, but in my opinion, it’s gone way too far. It’s vital that we understand better what is being done and how to reduce the tracking and spying. The more we understand about how these systems work, the more we can defend ourselves, while still taking advantage of the many benefits they provide. For example, it’s quite possible to explore interesting and useful web sites without being continuously tracked. You don’t have to reveal everything about yourself to social networks. But you have to know something about how to set up some defenses. More generally, I’m trying to help the reader to reach a better than superficial understanding of how computers work, what software is and how it’s created, and how the Internet and the Web operate. Going just a little deeper into these is totally within the grasp of anyone. The more you know, the better off you will be; knowing even a little about these topics will put you ahead of the large majority of people, and will protect you from any number of foolish behaviors.

Can you give us an example of how to defend ourselves against tracking by web sites?

BK: Whenever you visit a web site, a record is made of your visit, often by dozens of systems that are collecting information that can be used for targeted advertising. It’s easy to reduce this kind of tracking by turning off third-party cookies and by installing some ad-blocking software. You can still use the primary site, but you don’t give away much if anything to the trackers, so the spread of information about you is more limited.

If I don’t care if companies know what sites I visit, why should I be worried?

BK: “I’ve got nothing to hide,” spoken by an individual, or “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” offered by a government, are pernicious ideas. They frame the discussion in such a way as to concede the point at the beginning. Of course you have nothing to hide. If that’s true, would you mind showing me your tax returns? How did you vote in the last election? What’s your salary? Could I have your social security number? Could you tell me who you’ve called in the past year? Of course not—most of your life is no one else’s business.

What’s the one thing that you would advise everyone to do right now to improve their online privacy and security?

BK: Just one thing? Learn more about how your computer and your phone work, how the Internet works, and how to use all of them wisely. But I would add some specific recommendations, all of which are easy and worthwhile. First, in your browser, install defensive extensions like like AdBlock and Ghostery, and turn off third-party cookies. This will take you less than ten minutes and will cut your exposure by at least a factor of ten. Second, make sure that your computer is backed up all the time; this protects you against hardware failure and your own mistakes (both of which are not uncommon), and also against ransomware (though that is much less a risk if you are alert and have turned on your defenses). Third, use different passwords for different sites; that way, if one account is compromised, others will not be. And don’t use your Facebook or Google account to log in to other sites; that increases your vulnerability and gives away information about you for minor convenience. Finally, be very wary about clicking on links in email that have even the faintest hint of something wrong. Phishing attacks are one of the most common ways that accounts are compromised and identities stolen.

KernighanBrian W. Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is the coauthor of ten other books, including the computing classic The C Programming Language (Prentice Hall). He is the author of Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security.

The NYU Humanities Initiative Event

At a recent event for the Humanities Initiative at New York University, authors John T. Hamilton and Emily Apter spoke about their new books and their views on comparative literature.

John HamiltonJohn T. Hamilton is professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. He is the author of Music, Madness, and the Unworking of Language and Soliciting Darkness: Pindar, Obscurity, and the Classical Tradition. His most recent book, Security: Politics, Humanity, and the Philology of Care, addresses how “security” has become one of the most overused words in culture and politics today. In this original and timely book, John Hamilton examines the discursive versatility and semantic vagueness of security both in current and historical usage.

His discussion can be found here.

Emily ApterEmily Apter is professor of comparative literature and French at New York University. Her book, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature, argues that the field of translation studies, habitually confined to a framework of linguistic fidelity to an original, is ripe for expansion as the basis for a new comparative literature. Her newest project, Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, is an encyclopedic dictionary of close to 400 important philosophical, literary, and political terms and concepts that defy easy–or any–translation from one language and culture to another.

Her discussion can be found here.