Quiz Question

One of a continuing series

The topic for this week’s Quiz Question is famous quotes.

  1. Somebody first said famously, “There is no “there” there. Who said it first and what is it?
  2. When told that a certain person had died, the response was, “How can they tell?” Who died, and who said it?
  3. “If I owned half that dog I would kill my half.” Who said it?
  4. “It isn’t over until the fat lady sings.” Who said it? What was the inspiration?
  5. “Veni, vidi, vici.” Who said it first? What does it mean?
  6. “She makes you want to burn every bed in the world.” Who said it.
  7. “I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.” Who said it? Not Churchill as I first thought.
  8. “Gott Mit Uns.” You know what it means. Where was it famously inscribed?
  9. “If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness.” May not be an actual quote, but what is the supposed origin?
  10. “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.” Who wrote that?

Update and answers

Readers should have know most or all of these.

  1. Gertrude Stein said this about Oakland, California.
  2. Dorothy Parker, when told that Calvin  Coolidge had died, famously asked, “How can they tell?”
  3. Actually what Mark Twain said was, “If I owned half that dog, I would shoot my half.”
  4. The fat lady is the archetypal soprano in a Wagnerian opera. The opera is not over until the fat lady sings. Yogi Berra is alleged to have said it as a way of explaining when the game is over. Actually, he never  attended an opera in  his life, and it is most likely Sam Goldwyn said it first.
  5. Supposedly Julius Caesar said, in Latin, “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
  6. H.L. Mencken said this on admiring a grotesque sample of the opposite sex.
  7. Legendary trial lawyer Clarence Darrow said that.
  8. The Nazi storm troopers who ravaged a conquered Europe, raping, looting, and killing, wore belt buckles with the inscription, in German, “God [is] with us.”
  9. This was supposedly discovered inscribed on a wall in one of the Nazi death camps after liberation.
  10. Nobel Prize-winning  poet Bob Dylan provided this thought in his song Talkin’ World War III. I use it from time to time.

The Grand Alliance

I am reading Winston Churchill’s book The Second World War, and the third volume is The Grand Alliance. The tale is told by a person who was there and who took an immense part in this historical episode from the very beginning. Churchill’s view during the war was necessarily restricted to his own part, but following the war the entire workings of the Third Reich fell into the victors’ hands. Churchill made much use of this documentation, which included private correspondence between major players of the axis powers.

Post war revelations from these documents laid bare for the world what could only be conjectured during the events, and they exposed a level of perfidy and back dealing that would be the envy of any modern criminal gang. That people like these came to such power in major nations at the time is one aspect that makes the history of the Second World War such fascinating reading.

England and France declared war on Germany in 1939 due to the German invasion of Poland. Previously German Chancellor Adolph Hitler had successively broken portions of the Treaty of Versailles and had made aggressive moves against neighboring countries. Each time the victors of The Great War had backed down, not wanting to start another war with Germany. Poland had been the final straw and England and France belatedly began to prepare for military conflict. It was too late, and in 1940 Hitler struck at Norway and Denmark, then a month later at The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, all without any prior warning. France was quickly invaded and subdued, and England fought on alone, the sole major power to continue to oppose Germany. The United States remained neutral. No American politician could get elected without declaring American neutrality in the war.

When England would not accept peace terms with Germany, Hitler launched air attacks on England with the idea of a cross-channel invasion to follow. However, England won the air battle and gave German forces their first setback of the war. Then England went on the offensive. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini pitched his lot in with Hitler and began a grab for French, Balkan, Greek and African territory. The English went on the offensive and dealt the Italian army in North Africa a severe and embarrassing defeat. The year 1941 dawned with the opposing powers preparing their next moves.

In The Grand Alliance Churchill presents the text of a letter Hitler sent to Mussolini on the last day of 1940. The letter runs to several pages and has numbered sections. Hitler deals with different aspects of his current outlook, and the section pertaining to Russia (the Soviet Union) is most interesting:

Russia. Given the danger of seeing internal conflicts develop in a certain number of Balkan countries, it is necessary to foresee the extreme consequences and to have ready machinery capable of avoiding them. I do not envisage any Russian initiative against us so long as Stalin is alive, and we ourselves are not victims of serious setbacks. I consider it essential, Duce, as a premise of a satisfactory conclusion of this war that there should be in existence a German army sufficiently strong to deal with any eventuality in the East. The greater the strength of this army appears the less will be the probability that we shall have to employ it against an unforeseen danger. I would like to add to these general considerations that our present relations with the U.S.S.R. are very good. We are on the eve of concluding a trade treaty which will satisfy both parties, and there is considerable hope that we can resolve in a reasonable manner the remaining points at issue between us.

Churchill, Winston (2010-07-01). The Grand Alliance (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 308-314). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

What is so interesting are the last two sentences. Relations with the U.S.S.R. are good, and Hitler is negotiating a trade treaty that will be beneficial to both parties. Really? Hitler’s duplicity was something he could not share even with his partner in crime, Mussolini. The truth is that nearly a month prior, on 5 December, Hitler had already approved plans for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion and destruction of the Soviet Union.

On 5 December 1940, Hitler received military plans for the invasion, and approved them all, with the start scheduled for May 1941. On 18 December, Hitler signed War Directive No. 21 to the German High Command for an operation now codenamed “Operation Barbarossa” stating: “The German Wehrmacht must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign.” The operation was named after Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, a leader of the Third Crusade in the 12th century. The invasion was set for 15 May 1941. The plan for Barbarossa assumed that the Wehrmacht would emerge victorious if it could destroy the bulk of the Red Army west of the Western Dvina and Dnieper Rivers. This assumption would be proven fatally wrong less than a month into the invasion.

If Mussolini was deceived, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was doubly so. The Brits had access to a person, whose identity has never been discovered, who knew of the invasion plan. Stalin, the cold blooded killer and consummate schemer, refused to believe the warnings about his German co-conspirator until German forces opened fire at the Soviet border in the predawn hours of 22 June 1941.

If there is any consolation to all this, both parties quickly experienced deep regret. Stalin suffered enormous military and civilian losses before he was able to turn the tide. “The German invasion of the Soviet Union caused a high rate of fatalities: 95% of all German Army casualties that occurred from 1941 to 1944, and 65% of all Allied military casualties from the entire war.”

Hitler’s blunder was an enormous contributor to the Allied victory in the European theater of World War Two.

The Gathering Storm

I have been reading the book by Winston Churchill, and from time to time there pops up an item that needs to be passed upstream. Churchill was a leading master of the English language—a Nobel Prize in Literature among other testimonials. He started his professional life as a journalist with extensive military experience and entered public life, serving in the British government in the order of 50 years.

From Wikipedia

The Gathering Storm delves into the maneuvering and intrigue that moved the world from the German capitulation at the end of The Great War on into what is now known as World War II. No mass of duplicity and back-stabbing was considered out of bounds in those days and by the parties involved. It was apparent to Sir Winston that a train wreck of massive proportions was coming. Even prior to 1939 he at least once used the term “World War Two.”

One of the masters of intrigue was Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ribbentrop was a traveled businessman, fluent in English and French, and he gained Hitler’s favor about the time Hitler came to power in 1933. Hitler first made him Ambassador to England and later Foreign Secretary. Ribbentrop was instrumental in setting the stage for Germany’s aggressive drive to war. In the book, Churchill tells of the party given for Ribbentrop in London on the occasion of his departure from the diplomatic post. The story speaks volumes for the character of the person and for the times leading up to the plunge into the abyss of World War II. This is from the Kindle edition:

Herr von Ribbentrop was at this time about to leave London to take up his duties as Foreign Secretary in Germany. Mr. Chamberlain gave a farewell luncheon in his honour at No. 10 Downing Street. My wife and I accepted the Prime Minister’s invitation to attend. There were perhaps sixteen people present. My wife sat next to Sir Alexander Cadogan, near one end of the table. About half-way through the meal a Foreign Office messenger brought him an envelope. He opened it and was absorbed in the contents. Then he got up, walked round to where the Prime Minister was sitting, and gave him the message. Although Cadogan’s demeanour would not have indicated that anything had happened, I could not help noticing the Prime Minister’s evident preoccupation. Presently Cadogan came back with the paper and resumed his seat. Later I was told its contents. It said that Hitler had invaded Austria and that the German mechanised forces were advancing fast upon Vienna. The meal proceeded without the slightest interruption, but quite soon Mrs. Chamberlain, who had received some signal from her husband, got up, saying, “Let us all have coffee in the drawing-room.” We trooped in there, and it was evident to me and perhaps to some others that Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain wished to bring the proceedings to an end. A kind of general restlessness pervaded the company, and everyone stood about ready to say good-bye to the guests of honour.

However, Herr von Ribbentrop and his wife did not seem at all conscious of this atmosphere. On the contrary, they tarried for nearly half an hour engaging their host and hostess in voluble conversation. At one moment I came in contact with Frau von Ribbentrop, and in a valedictory vein I said, “I hope England and Germany will preserve their friendship.” “Be careful you don’t spoil it,” was her graceful rejoinder. I am sure they both knew perfectly well what had happened, but thought it was a good manoeuvre to keep the Prime Minister away from his work and the telephone. At length Mr. Chamberlain said to the Ambassador, “I am sorry I have to go now to attend to urgent business,” and without more ado he left the room. The Ribbentrops lingered on, so that most of us made our excuses and our way home. Eventually I suppose they left. This was the last time I saw Herr von Ribbentrop before he was hanged.

Churchill, Winston (2010-07-01). The Gathering Storm (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 4411-4413). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Breaking the back of the Confederacy

It was 150 years ago this month. It was not immediately obvious, it was subtle, it was fateful, it was ultimately fatal. The Confederacy was losing the war.

If you are a fan of Stephen Crane, then you have read The Red Badge of Courage. I also recommend the movie, starring American war hero Audie Murphy. In the opening scenes the soldiers of the Union Army are discussing the rumors they are going to cross the river and hit the enemy from the other side. It’s the Battle of Chancellorsville they are talking about.

Movie poster from IMDB.com

By this stage in the war, now two years on, President Lincoln had determined that the destruction of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia should be a prime objective, rather than the capture of any strategic geography. To this end Union General Joseph Hooker was put into command of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker faced Lee’s army across the Rappahannock River in Virginia, southwest of Washington, DC.

Hooker had superior numbers over Lee by two to one, yet this was to be Lee’s greatest victory. Shots were first exchanged in the morning of 1 May 1863, and Hooker’s indecisiveness and lack of initiative eventually allowed victory to slip away. On 2 May Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson executed a decisive attack on the Union Army’s right flank. Then tragedy struck the Confederacy.

In the early evening following his victory Jackson rode out to inspect the battle situation and was shot by a Confederate picket while returning to his lines. Medical science at the time was still primitive, and it was necessary to amputate Jackson’s left arm. He died on 10 May.

The ultimate tragedy was in the numbers:

Lee, despite being outnumbered by a ratio of over two to one, won arguably his greatest victory of the war, sometimes described as his “perfect battle.” But he paid a terrible price for it. With only 60,000 men engaged, he suffered 13,303 casualties (1,665 killed, 9,081 wounded, 2,018 missing), losing some 22% of his force in the campaign—men that the Confederacy, with its limited manpower, could not replace. Just as seriously, he lost his most aggressive field commander, Stonewall Jackson. Brig. Gen. Elisha F. Paxton was the other Confederate general killed during the battle. After Longstreet rejoined the main army, he was highly critical of Lee’s strategy, saying that battles like Chancellorsville cost the Confederacy more men than it could afford to lose.

This crippling blow was to be felt a few weeks later when Lee attempted to bring the war to the North. Lee had never lost a battle during the war, and Chancellorsville was his last victory. The Confederacy was on the skids from this battle forward.

Beat the Dealer

I have mentioned this book in a previous post. Fifty years ago I was getting books through a book club, and this book came as a set along with The Compleat Strategist by J.D. Williams. I have retained these books all this time, during my college days, living in Austin, Dallas, New York, Dallas again and now San Antonio. Looking back I see I have not kept wives as steadfastly as I have kept these books. That’s the way it is with books.

The Williams book deals with a subsection of game theory, particularly zero-sum games, and it concentrates on games involving two parties. Blackjack is a card game played in casinos, and it is, in its simplest form, a two-person, zero-sum game. However, blackjack, as played in casinos does not lend itself to game theory.

The reason you can’t apply game theory to blackjack (also known as twenty-one) is that the dealer is not allowed to play a strategy. For any given state of a hand of blackjack, the dealer is not allowed any options. For example and as explained in the book: When the dealer’s hand is 16 or below, the dealer must take another card. When the dealer’s hand is 17 or above, he may not take another card. There are exceptions to this rule, but in all cases the dealer never has any options.

The time was practically at the dawn of the computer age. People did not talk about my computer. They talked about the computer. Very few individuals owned a complete computer.

Edward O. Thorpe was teaching at the University of California Los Angeles when a colleague told him about a paper that dealt with a strategy for playing blackjack. The journal reference is:

Baldwin, Roger; Cantey, Wilbert; Maisel, Herbert; and McDermott, James, “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack,” Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 51, 429-439 (1956)

The summary of the paper is that a person playing against a casino has a 0.62% edge when a certain strategy is employed. As the book recounts, the authors later found a mistake in their computations, and the players actually have only a 0.32% edge. The book is a bit unclear on this. On page 15 the author states the house edge is 0.62%, but in the footnote at the bottom of the page the house edge is referred to as -0.62%, which would mean a 0.62% edge for the player. Likewise, the footnote corrects the house edge to -0.32%.

To simplify the scheme, on average, when playing against the house, if a player bets the same all the time, the house is going to win. However, if the player keeps track of cards that have been played out of the deck, thereby obtaining knowledge of cards remaining in the deck, then the player can make small bets, and obtain small losses, when the situation is not favorable to him, and he can make large bets, and obtain large gains, when the situation is favorable. Implicit in this is that the player must play every hand to stay in the game. The dealer will reshuffle the deck or obtain a fresh deck anytime a player joins the game. A reshuffle erases any special knowledge the play may have had about the remaining cards to be played.

Beat the Dealer is the story of Thorp, who with the backing of some rich players, played $10,000 and beat the Las Vegas casinos. He also mentions what may be amusing to modern readers, his thanks to M.I.T. Computation Center for the use of an IBM 704 computer. This powerhouse of computation had 18,432 bytes of RAM and could execute up to 4000 instructions per second. How would you like to have one of these babies built into your microwave oven?

If you saw the 1988 movie Rain Man, you will recall the crucial episode is when Charlie Babbitt uses his autistic brother Raymond’s ability to count cards and to take home a sizable amount of cash from the casinos, thus saving his business and the plot. Also, you will recall that in the movie the casinos were less than enthusiastic about losing in a systematic way, and they not very politely disinvited the pair from ever playing in the town again.

Thorp’s was the first use of the strategy to beat the casinos, and they were less polite with them than with the fictional Babbitt brothers. Specifically, prior to forbidding Thorp to play, they brought in cheating dealers to dissuade his endeavors. This after employing frequent reshuffles and multiple decks to defeat card counting. These are, after all, for-profit business, not charities.

Thorp has gone on to greater things since his book. He teamed with Claude Shannon to win additionally at casinos (presumably in disguise). From Wikipedia:

Since the late 1960s, Thorp has used his knowledge of probability and statistics in the stock market by discovering and exploiting a number of pricing anomalies in the securities markets, and he has made a significant fortune. Thorp’s first hedge fund was Princeton/Newport Partners. He is currently the President of Edward O. Thorp & Associates, based in Newport Beach, CA. In May 1998, Thorp reported that his personal investments yielded an annualized 20 percent rate of return averaged over 28.5 years.

Guadalcanal Diary

My earlier posts have touched on the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of Midway. Seventy years ago the Japanese Empire sought to establish and maintain its own realm of domination in the Eastern Pacific, something that would make it economically and militarily self-sufficient. This zone was meant to be completely defensible in case other powers sought to challenge the Empire’s hold. Already Japan was in the process of gobbling up China with zero regard for human life. This action particularly incensed the Western powers, most strongly the United States, and we were already beginning to challenge Japan with economic sanctions and tough talk. Japanese leaders devised a plan to knock America out of the conflict with a pre-emptive strike that would eliminate our military power in the region and give American citizens pause to consider a military response. They could hardly have been more far from the mark than circumstances proved to be the case.

The Pearl Harbor attack did not completely destroy our Pacific fleet (the carriers were not in port on the day of the attack), and the American public, rather than being cowed, wanted Japanese blood, lots of it.

The Pearl Harbor victory was followed up within days, even hours, with additional decisive blows to the Western powers in the region. The Philippines were quickly overrun and the American garrison there eliminated almost to the last man. Quickly Dutch, French and British interests in the region (Indochina/Vietnam, Dutch West Indies/Indonesia, Burma, etc.) succumbed to Japanese control with disastrous losses to the Western powers. This operation was essentially completed by April of 1942, about the time of the Doolittle Raid. The Doolittle Raid was sort of a punch in the Japanese nose, not a knockout blow, just a little something that drew blood. Coming 100 days after the Pearl Harbor attack, this should have been a wakeup call for the Japanese, a preview of things to come. Instead it stimulated a knee-jerk reaction that caused the Japanese plan to lose objectivity.

Japanese military leaders, having just completed the most magnificant military conquest in all history, now began to get ambitious. The momentum was up and not to be lost. Japanese leaders set their sights on further expansion. Also, some reasoned that expansion would provide their secure conquests additional defensive depth. The immediate result was the Battle of the Coral Sea, where the Japanese were stymied in their ambitions for the first time. This was quickly followed by the Battle of Midway, where the heart of Japanese naval power was cut out.

That brings things developments up to the Battle of Guadalcanal, 70 years ago this week. Take a look at a map. Guadalcanal is a large island at the southeast end of the Solomon Islands chain, just northeast of Australia. When American reconnaissance flights in late July discovered the Japanese were building an airstrip on Guadalcanal it was obvious that the United States needed to counter this move decisively. This was to be the very first full military attack by the United States in World War II, and it is significant to note that, in the Pacific, from Guadalcanal forward our forces were never again on the defensive.

On 7 August, eight months after the Pearl Harbor attack, a contingent of the First Marine Division landed on the north side of Guadalcanal and on the nearby islands of Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo. The marines soon took the nearly completed Japanese airfield, but a Japanese naval counter attack drove the Marines’ naval support into retreat with heavy losses.

Due to such books as Guadalcanal Diary and The Thin Red Line, the popular impression of the Guadalcanal campaign was one of strictly jungle warfare. Guadalcanal Diary was written by war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, who was there with the forces. I have not read Guadalcanal Diary, but I did read James Jones’ excellent novel, The Thin Red Line. Jones was in the Army and fought in the battle. He was also at Pearl Harbor, from which he derived his book From Here to Eternity. A comparison between The Thin Red Line and documentary accounts of the battle quickly reveals a wide gap between the fiction of Jones and the real battle. Reading the Jones book will give you the idea that Guadalcanal involved military strategy and decisive battles. More realistic accounts, including those in the HBO miniseries The Pacific, directed by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, show the campaign as one long struggle with an intractable foe slowly being crushed by Marines and Army forces who would not be stopped. For some there it seemed as though the island were the real enemy as our forces encountered for the first time the misery of fighting in a rain-soaked, disease-infested tropical jungle.

Significantly, on Guadalcanal American forces for the first time came face to face with Japanese soldiers, and lived to tell about it. The troops who fought the Japanese in the Philippines were completely defeated and were killed or else surrendered en masse and were largely killed afterwards. On Guadalcanal our troops defeated the Japanese and came to despise them utterly. In an early encounter an American patrol was lured into an ambush by the promise of the surrender of a body of enemy soldiers. Very few offers of surrender were accepted following that, and the Marines, and the Army soldiers who followed learned to shoot even the bodies of dead Japanese. Another thing our troops learned was a startling concept the Japanese had of combat.

The warrior code that developed from the pre-war bushido (way of the warrior) gave the Japanese fighters the sense that they were already dead, and being killed in battle was a foregone conclusion. This was coupled with another Japanese battle philosophy, the reliance on a single, killing blow with no plan B in case of failure. Early Japanese tactics did not comprehend battles of attrition or even set-piece engagements that employed the comprehension of an evolving battlefield situation. What the Americans first saw of this has since come to be called the “banzai charge.”

An American soldier interviewed for one of the television military documentary programs explained his observation. Quoting very loosely, “I never understood what went on in a man’s mind that made him think that, if he were coming to kill me, he should come at me shouting and screaming.” But that’s what American first began to observe on Guadalcanal, and the first significant encounter was what became known as The Battle of Alligator Creek or The Battle of Tenaru. In short, the Marines learned the Japanese were advancing, and they set up a defensive position. The Japanese attacked in waves starting just after midnight on 21 August. As each wave was annihilated by Marine rifle fire, machine guns and artillery, the Japanese commander sent in a follow-up wave. Ultimately the Americans went on the offensive and wound up grinding Japanese, dead and alive, under the treads of their tanks. No Japanese voluntarily surrendered, a few were captured badly injured, and a small number escaped out of an initial body of over 900. Bodies were piled up in front of Marine gun emplacements, and the Americans had learned a valuable lesson.

The Pacific TV series goes to great length to emphasize the disdain that American fighting troops developed for their Japanese foes. The lack of respect gained on Guadalcanal was continually re-emphasized as the Pacific war ground to a conclusion. Japanese fighters considered Americans, in fact all foreigners, to be subhuman, and the Americans returned the attribution with a burning vengeance. Only when they began to encounter Japanese civilians on Okinawa and other Japanese islands did Americans come to feel some humanity for Japanese.

The Japanese faith in their fighting code was severely shaken by the outcome of the Battle of Guadalcanal, but the Empire continued to pour replacements into the region until their forces finally withdrew, leaving about 24,000 dead behind. American losses included 1600 killed.

It would be a huge mistake to think of Guadalcanal only in terms of the land battle. While all the land fighting was going on, American and Japanese ships and warplanes were hammering each other in support of the invasion forces. Again, from Encyclopedia Britannica:

The various naval battles cost each side 24 warships: the Japanese lost 2 battleships, 4 cruisers, 1 light carrier, 11 destroyers, and 6 submarines, while the Americans lost 8 cruisers, 2 heavy carriers, and 14 destroyers.

The air battles here and further along the Solomon chain produced the air aces of the Pacific. Marine pilot Greg (Pappy) Boyington and Army pilot Richard Bong vied for the title of ace of aces until Boyington was downed in combat on 3 January 1943. Boyington had 24 victories to his credit at the time and finished out the war in a Japanese prison camp. Bong retired to stateside before the war with over with 40 victories. He worked as a test pilot for the famous Lockheed facility in Burbank, California and was killed in a crash on 6 August 1945, the day an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, was hunted down and killed by a flight of Army P-38 fighters over Bougainville on 18 April 1943, exactly one year after the Doolittle Raid. American codebreakers had learned of his flight schedule in time to set up the ambush.

The Codebreakers

You wouldn’t think this book would be such a page turner, but then perhaps you need to have a certain mindset to appreciate the topic.

I obtained the The Codebreakers through a book club over 40 years ago, and eventually plowed through all 965 pages and learned some valuable lessons about secret codes. The most valuable lesson people can learn about secret codes is not so much how to construct them but the consequences of relying on an unsecure encryption mechanism.

Previously I wrote about the 1942 Battle of Midway that was a stunning victory for the American forces. As mentioned, the American success was due to the drive and determination of our forces, some very disastrous tactical moves by the Japanese commander and not least the Japanese reliance on what they thought was a secure code. As author David Kahn explained, Navy cryptographers in Hawaii started working on Japanese navy codes well before the attack on Pearl Harbor and had figured out that Japan was planning something nefarious. For one thing, they learned that specific instructions were being sent to the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C. in multiple parts, with the last part to be sent on 7 December 1941. Without knowing the details, America put its remote outposts on notice to watch out for something from the Japanese, especially in the Philippines. Pearl Harbor was not considered to be the prime object of interest. The following year the Navy codebreakers had figured out enough turn the planned Japanese ambush at Midway into a disaster for the Japanese navy. So much for trusting an “unbreakable” code.

I first got interested in codes and code breaking when a Boy Scout project inspired me to invent a code of my own. What a remarkable and brilliant invention it was, too. What I was going to do was to substitute a number for every letter in the alphabet and then code my secret messages by writing the numbers instead of the letters. To decode my secret messages, all the receiver had to do was to reverse the process. All the receiver needed was a copy of my encoding table, which no outsider could ever guess at in a million years.

Not so smart, really. I soon learned that this simple substitution cipher was the oldest, the simplest  and the easiest encryption system to break. Puzzles appearing in magazines for retired people routinely ask the reader to crack this simple cipher and produce the hidden message.

Obviously, modern encryption systems are much more sophisticated than this, and in real life they present a challenge that requires much time of the world’s fastest computers to unravel. As a confirmation, you will notice that one of the largest, if not the largest, purchasers of the world’s fastest computers is our own NSA, National Security Agency. Also, if you are a top mathematician and need a job, you might give the NSA a look.

Anyhow, avoiding a lot of the mathematical terminology I picked up in college, I will attempt to explain the general idea behind all modern codes. Rather than using words like “mapping” and “inverse mapping,” I have a real-life analogy that should provide the flavor of the problem.

Suppose everybody lived in one city, and it was well-mapped. If I gave you my address you would have no problem finding me. So, I want to send somebody my address, but I do not want other people to intercept my message, read my address and come knocking.

Now, suppose this city is located on a vast plane where nobody lives. Further, suppose this vast plane is the size of the Sahara Desert or even the size of the ecliptic plane of the planet Earth. Get the picture: City small, empty plane much larger. So here is what you do.

You develop a scheme that, given an address in the city, will compute a corresponding location in the vast and empty plane. What you do next is perform this computation and put the result into your message instead of your real address. Then you send your message. The recipient of your message has a corresponding scheme to compute your address from the location given in the message. The idea is that outsiders will not have a copy of the scheme that translates these spurious locations into addresses in the city.

To further elaborate on the analogy, the addresses in the city represent the set of messages that make sense in, for example, English. The vast and empty plane represents the set of all messages, those that make sense and those that do not. To crack this code, an outsider will need to obtain a copy of an encrypted message and re-invent the scheme that maps points in the set of all possible messages back to the set of messages that make sense. An important point is that the inverse mapping scheme needs to be simple and universally correct. Here’s an example of what I am talking about.

When Orleans Parish, Louisiana, District Attorney Jim Garrison sought to make a name for himself by implicating various people in the assassination of President Kennedy, one of the claims he made was the translation of “P. O. 19106” from Lee Oswald’s notebook into Jack Ruby’s unlisted Dallas phone number. The problem was, the scheme was too elaborately tailored to this specific translation. It was even more obtuse than the Bible code schemes that ran their course about 15 years ago.

Anyhow, that’s a very brief summary, in a very abstract manner, of the basis of most modern encryption schemes. You take a message that makes sense (“Saddam Hussein is hiding out at 209 Ali Street.”) and you hide it in a mountain of gibberish so that outsiders will find it nearly impossible to back out the original text. The core of this idea hit me one day when I was working on a project for a government contractor.

Our job was to develop a system for managing messages on a tactical radio network. Messages that went out over the radio were securely encrypted, but we also needed to make efficient use of the available transmission capacity. It would be best to compress the messages before they were transmitted. So, the question came up, “Should we encrypt the messages before we compress them?”

I thought about this for about two seconds, and the answer hit me. “No.” It was obvious that compressing an encrypted message was tantamount to decoding it. If you had a supposedly encrypted message, and you have successfully compressed it, you have successfully mapped it from the large plane of all possible messages (sense and nonsense) into a much smaller region that must still contain the message of interest. I did not have to, but I did run an experiment to verify that a properly encrypted message cannot be compressed.

Modern cryptography hit the mainstream in 1976 when Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman published their paper on public key methods. Hellman wrote up the process in the August 1979 issue of Scientific American and offered a copy of their paper to readers who asked. Naturally I obtained a copy, even though I was never able to work through the math.

Anyhow, cryptography is an interesting topic, and there is a lot of math involved and politics, besides. If you have an effective encryption scheme, you are not allowed to export it to another country, meaning you cannot carry or send a copy outside the country without your government’s permission. I never figured out how this restriction could be enforced, but it does show your government is looking out for you and is doing something.

The fun part for me came down to a moment in one of my college classes. I was trying to get a degree in computer science, and one of my courses was database design. The professor thought it would be a good idea to touch on encryption (for database security). He wanted to show us what encryption was all about, so he wrote two lines on the board. I cannot reproduce the text exactly, because I was not taking good notes, but what he wrote was essentially this:



“What is this?” he asked.

I stared at it. Obviously a code of some sort. If it’s a code, I wondered, what is it? I tried the two lines and thought about applying a frequency analysis to see if this was a substitution cipher. Then I had a better idea. What course were we taking? DATABASE design. The first line was just DATABASE with the letters scrambled. Making the proper letter for letter substitution, the second line was also DATABASE. So I decided to answer the professor’s question.

“The first line is a transmutation cipher, and the second line is a substitution cipher.” And I said no more.

The professor was a little taken aback at first, and he pressed for more. “But what does it say?”

I told him it was DATABASE. And I said no more.

Now the professor was dumfounded. Maybe not so dumbfounded as the Japanese had been years earlier when our navy cracked their tactical codes, but he was still interested. “How did you do that?” he asked.

I remember many years ago reading about this guy who was a great prankster, and he decided to perpetrate a hoax on some magicians. The magicians were having one of their frequent conferences where they all get to together and discuss new tricks, and this guy said he wanted to come and show off a card trick that none of them had ever seen before. At first he was rebuffed. Professional magicians are well versed on all the tricks, and they didn’t want to be bothered by some amateur with some old trick. Anyhow he finally talked his way in, and when his time came he proceeded to demonstrate his trick. The trick involved naming the card that somebody else picked from a deck. There are probably about a thousand tricks that involve this theme, and professional magicians are acquainted with all of them. However, this one was different. I do not recall the details; I don’t even recall the name of the hoaxer, though he was well-known in his time. His trick involved a number of mechanizations to make the act interesting. Then at the critical moment the hoaxer announced the card. It was, he said, “The three of diamonds.”

Of course it was not the three of diamonds. The hoaxer was just hoping to get lucky. “If I had gotten it correct,” he later recounted, “they would be scratching their heads to this day.”

So, this episode came to mind sometime after that when I was in a motorcycle shop, and some teenage boys were doing card tricks. So I thought of the hoax, and decided to give it a try. I told one of the kids to pick a card from the deck and put it in his pocket. That he did, and when he was putting it in his pocket I saw the card. The only thing left for me to do after that was to make the whole thing interesting. They are scratching their heads to this day.

So, years later, in my database design course the professor was asking me how I was able to decode his message. I just told him that I had some previous experience with encryption, and this was one of the things I could do. And I said nothing more. He may be scratching his head to this day.

You can read more and amaze (bore) your friends with neat stuff about cryptography. For a high-level treatment of cryptographic applications in real life you should to read Applied Cryptography by Bruce Schneier.

Fishnet And Old Lace

Slow news day. Here is the best I could come up with:

A VIRGIN aged 70 yesterday declared she is ready to have sex.

Cabaret singer Pam Shaw said she has always been too busy working to find a man.

And even though she sings under the saucy name The Sexational Pam — and has rubbed shoulders over the years with sex symbols of the time like Tom Jones and Roger Moore — she has never hopped between the sheets.

Pam, it’s possible that train has already left the station. Perhaps you should pay more attention to a bit of classical poetry from one of your own countrymen, Robert Herrick:

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.