|  BlueWolf's Howl   | Comics and Art  | Higher Level  | Photography  | Poetry and Stories  |
|  Chess  |  Letterboxing  |
|  2003 Blogathon Archive  |   2005 Blogathon Archive  | 8th Layer Archive  | Blue702 Archive  |

BlueWolf's Howl

« MT Local | Bluewolf's Howl | Playing with Pandora »

December 30, 2003

Puzzles that drive you nuts

Believe it or not, there are puzzles that are harder than a Rubic's cube...

I first ran across a reference to the Beale treasure code while reading a book on mathematical puzzles and oddities. To rehash an old story: A man named Thomas Jefferson Beale left a strongbox with Robert Morriss, the owner of a Virginia Inn. Within the strongbox were encrypted letters which detailed a vast amount of treasure, the location of the hidden treasure, and the names of Beale's associates. If Beale did not return in ten years, Morriss was to open the strongbox and would be given the key to decipher the letters. He was to dig up the treasure and distribute it between the surviving associates and himself. The treasure consisted of gold and silver that was mined in the southwest and buried in Virginia. Morriss never received the key to cracking the codes and enlisted the help of his friend, James B. Ward. By accident, Ward found that the second of the three pages of code could be deciphered using the Declaration of Independence. He claimed that the code (three pages of numbers) was a book cypher. You take the first letter of every word in a document (or book) and number each one. Then you encode and decode your message using the numbers (which relate to letters in the document) to spell out your hidden message.

If I wanted to encrypt a message of "HI" using this text as the basis, it would come out as : 10, 2. A short text would limit the amount of substitution possible and make the hidden text easier to uncover using such things as frequency analysis. A longer text would allow more substitution and would hide the frequency of common letters and phrases. If you look at this text, you'll see the three letter combo of "the" quite often. If you saw a frequency of the same three numbers in the encrypted text, you could guess that those three numbers represent "t", "h" and "e"... [This is the weakness of a single alphabet substitution cypher.] Using a text (such as this one) for encrypting a message would allow multiple instances of the same letter and would mask frequency within the original (hidden) message. Using this text as the basis, I could encode the first instance of "the" in my hidden message as : 22, 75, 62 and the second instance of "the" could be : 70, 10, 150. This makes a code much harder to crack.

I remember first reading about the Beale code while living in Manassas, Virginia. I'm sure that being in such close proximity to the actual location of this buried treasure added to its allure. But, it was also a puzzle...one that had not yet been solved. It is the Gordian Knot of our time.

If you remember anything about the Gordian Knot, it was solved by Alexander with his sword (he "solved" it by cutting the knot). Likewise, many treasure hunters are trying to find the hidden treasure without cracking the code. Perhaps the treasure has been found long ago. Perhaps it never existed. But, these codes exist. They are real and they haven't been solved. It is the Grail of cryptography... which is where I stumbled upon this subject again.

But, I think the more interesting aspect of the situation would be: How could you let anyone know if you *did* solve the code? [No, I didn't solve it...] What would happen to the person who raised their hand and said they knew the answer? If anyone could determine their location, undoubtedly the house would be broken into...the computer searched...the house searched for scraps of paper... Greed is a powerful and dangerous emotion. The person would likely be taken hostage and forced to reveal the location -- and then killed. The code breaker could never touch any of the treasure. How could you ask for permission to dig on someone else's land? What if it's on federal property? What if it's on private property? What would be the safest way to release the information without getting yourself killed?

Perhaps the safest way would be to release the decoded text and hope that whoever ends up alive after it gets pulled out of the ground would give you some type of reward...? Or are "bragging rights" for breaking the code a reward in itself? Then, what? I'm sure that the NSA would be paying you a sudden visit...

William Friedman, one of the greatest cryptologic minds of the 20th century and patriarch of the agency, spent more than three decades trying to solve the puzzle, which haunted him until he died more than 30 years ago.

And what do you think *they* would want with you? You think they want to have lunch and discuss job opportunities and employee benefit packages? Even more ominous would be their competition which may demand your services....

One of the warnings published with the original pamphlet spoke of the dangers of obsessing over the code.

In conclusion it may not be inappropriate to say a few words regarding myself: In consequence of the time lost in the above investigation, I have been reduced from comparative affluence to absolute penury, entailing suffering upon those it was my duty to protect, and this, too, in spite of their remonstrances. My eyes were at last opened to their condition, and I resolved to sever at once, and forever, all connection with the affair, and retrieve, if possible, my errors. To do this, as the best means of placing temptation beyond my reach, I determined to make public the whole matter, and shift from my shoulders my responsibility to Mr. Morriss.

I think the danger would lie in breaking the code - even more so than obsessing over it and never finding it... As Lara Croft says in The Cradle of Life, "some things are not meant to be found..."

Posted by BlueWolf on December 30, 2003 03:00 PM