Loving the Enigma

It’s not like I’m pro-Nazi, please understand, but I am an unabashed supporter of their Enigma machine. It should have worked. It would have been infallible, if only …

enigma-machine2The Enigma was their name for the message-encoding device that they created, and it was a cryptographer’s dream – slick, fast, and mesmerizingly complex.

Anyone who has ever worked a cryptogram puzzle in a crossword magazine knows how easy it is to crack a simple alphabet-substitution cypher. You pick out common words like “the” or “a” and with a little patience you’ve worked out the whole code.  Of course, the longer the message, the easier it is to decipher. If you’ve got a full paragraph to work with and it’s stocked with common small words, it’s usually quite easy. If it’s only a word or two, it’s nearly impossible .. unless you have another snippet of code with the same substitution scheme to compare it to.

Which leads us to the genius of the Enigma:

Caesar_cipherFirst, they designed it like an electric typewriter. But instead of hooking the “S” on the keyboard up to the letter “S,” it was randomly assigned to another letter, say “V.” So the person sending the message was able to type it at normal speed and what came out was the encrypted code. Before computers, this was an amazing breakthrough. Even better, the recipient merely had to type it out on his end and the uncoded message just appeared.

At its heart, it was still a substitution cypher, which could have been broken … until they added the “tumblers.” These doodads changed the connection from the keyboard to the typed letter with every keystroke. So if you typed SSS, what came out might be VKU.

Imagine trying to crack a substitution code where every letter used a completely different code!

enigma-machineLike I said, genius. And they made it very easy to reset the tumblers, so that every day they started with a fresh, random code. The Germans developed instruction books for everyone with an Enigma machine to show them how to set it up each morning so that everyone in their message chain would have the same coding structure each day. Thus, the Allies had to begin cracking codes each morning with absolutely no prior messages to help them out.

The men who approved the Enigma were experts at cryptography and knew exactly what the Allies would be looking for in cracking the codes, so they also mandated a few simple rules for the people sending the messages: never repeat phrases; try to avoid overuse of common words; avoid using people’s names unless absolutely necessary.

And this is where it falls apart because, unfortunately for them, the people sending the messages didn’t know or care about rules of cryptanalysis.

Some general got the idea to send weather reports each day, just after dawn. As soon as the Allies realized this, they started looking for the words “cloudy” and “rain” and bada-bing they had their first clue of the day handed to them.

My favorite of the misuses comes from the telegraph guys themselves, stationed far from home, feeling like a small component in the scheme of things. They had to send a quick test phrase each day to their sending/receiving counterpart, to make sure everyone’s machines were in sync. These were supposed to be random words pulled from a dictionary, but instead they got in the habit of using the name of their girl back home, or their hometown. It took the Allies a bit longer to catch onto this, but once you find out that the bloke on the 6 am shift is starting every day by piningly typing “Frau Gisela,” you’re well on your way to cracking every code he sends from there on out.

Now, I’m not saying that any of this was easy for the Allies. If they hadn’t gotten their hands on a working Enigma machine after seizing a submarine, they may never have figured out a single message. And I’m not trying to take anything away from Alan Turing (the man credited with cracking the Enigma by building the world’s first computer, A.K.A. the geek’s dreamboat).

But it is amusing to realize that the Nazis couldn’t even get their own army to follow simple procedures about sending top-secret messages. People have to find ways to be individuals, and that usually means breaking rules.

Or, to look at it another way:
The world is shaped by people taking shortcuts because they’re certain their way is “good enough.”


The Banana Blight

Hey, remember when that botanical pandemic wiped out all the world’s bananas back in the 1950s? Neither do I, but apparently it happened.

Without any of us realizing it, the world’s banana crops were killed off by a fungus known as Panama Disease. Killed like the dodo birds. Utterly extinct.


So how are we still eating them?

Get ready for this:cloning.

There are in fact many varieties of bananas still in existence, but most types are only about as big as your finger and full of seeds that would break your teeth. The kind that most of the world was eating until the late 50s was the Gros Michel; that’s the one that was wiped out. The Cavendish strain is the one that survived the blight, and that’s the variety that 95% of the banana-eating world is munching on.

And if you’ve ever wondered why bananas don’t have seeds, it’s this: every single Cavendish plant is a clone. The growers take a cutting of an older banana root and replant it. This explains why every banana tastes alike – they are genetic twins.

All of this is pretty cool until … da-da-da … the arrival of the next deadly fungus, a new strain of Panama Disease that seems intent on wiping out the Cavendish. Since these plants are cloned instead of reproducing, there is absolutely no chance that they’ll adapt in time to evade the disease.

Enter the gene splitters. The best hope for keeping bananas around is to modify them by cross-breeding them with a heartier fruit, or even fish.

Yes, fish. Lord knows why this seems like a good idea to anyone. As much as I don’t want to lose my favorite fruit, I will go on record right here and now that I will never, ever, ever put a fish-banana on my ice cream sundae.

Some really boring reading, if you’re interested:

Digital Languages

I like to tell people that I’m semi-fluent in several languages (Hang on, don’t be too impressed – the sentence isn’t finished yet), if you count computer codes.

I lost you there, didn’t I? I’ve never been able to convince anyone that “speaking” a computer language is the same as any other. My Spanish IV professor was outraged when I suggested it. To me, though, it’s all in the same vein:

  • Both have specific nouns and verbs you need to memorize.
    (Though, thankfully, there’s no need to learn conjugation in a computer language. I presume this is because it never occurred to anyone to use a feminine pronoun for coding.)
  • Each has its own strict sentence structure and punctuation.
    (Ach, the hours I’ve lost searching for misplaced semi-colons!)
  • Once you’ve learned one, it’s easier to learn a second. And again, once you’ve mastered a couple, it is far easier to learn a third.
  • The only real difference that I can see is that there’s no such thing as Tex-Mex in computer languages. Try mixing ASP and PHP and if you end up with anything remotely functional it will probably make your computer whimper and self-implode.

What connected the two for me is something my college Spanish prof. said – that the strength in learning a new language is to help you break down ideas. You have to figure out ways to say what you want using only the words you’ve already learned. It’s a lesson in logic and teaching your brain to operate in a new direction.

… Which is exactly what coding is about, except that instead of making conversation (and continually asking, “where is the library?”) you’re issuing a series of commands and expecting the recipient to obey without talking back. So I guess it’s a lot like learning German.

The Electric Donut

Long after all the other 80s phrases (your “gag me”s, your “tubular”s) have faded from my vernacular, there is one innately 80s saying that I still try to inject into conversation: “I’ve got my quarter up.”

Guys within 5 years above or below my age will give me a sly grin of recognition; from everyone else I get blank stares.

dk-quarterI’m talking about video games, of course. True games played at an arcade. With quarters, not tokens. For only 25-cents a play. This is back when a stand-up arcade game offered infinitely better graphics than what you could get on your home computer.

My tiny town had a joint called the Electric Donut, part coffee shop, part arcade. The adults knew to clear out around 3:30 each day as a swarm of pale, teen townies took over the back room. About the size of a one-car garage, it was lined with eight games from the original years (Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga — the classics, man!) and standing-room only for us teens. We’d pack in tight around each screen until the kid currently playing cried out for more elbow room. As soon as his turn was over, the next player had the quarter ready to shove into the slot. While the game rebooted with the title screen, you would use the bottom of your t-shirt to wipe the sweat off of the joystick, then crouch into position.

donkey-kong-arcadeSomewhere along the way — and this seemed to be a universal among arcades at that time — the tradition developed of putting your quarter in the metal ridge at the top of the machine, facing out. Thus you could hold your place in line while you ran off to sugar up on Grape Welch’s and Nerds. At any given time, the best games would have 5-6 quarters inching their way along that ledge.

Those of you not from that era are probably wondering how we marked our quarters to know which was which. Here’s the beautiful part: we didn’t have to! Each kid was so centered on getting that turn that you knew exactly how many quarters were in front of you, even if you were in queue on several machines at once.

To me, “I’ve got my quarter up,” evokes at once patience, courtesy, and nevertheless a deep longing for this fascinating prize to come.

A friend of mine once got passed a note in study hall that said, “I know you’re still dating N.M., but if you two break up, I’ve got my quarter up on you.”

She hated everything about that letter, but at the time I thought it was drop-dead romantic … you know, for an 8th grade boy.