Decoding the project – languages, code and ciphers

Visual from paper model of an Enigma machine

Below is a gallery of images collected during research into ideas around a ‘universal’ language and codes, partly inspired by my exposure to cuneiform at the British Museum, and research into the Aricebo Message.

Firstly, hobo signs, or the ‘hobo code’.

“Sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s, poor men, typically those finding difficulty finding jobs, took to the rails. These migratory workers hopped onto trains, riding illegally (but for free) in freight cars, bouncing around the country looking for work. For reasons lost to history, these people became known as “hobos.” They developed a less than sterling reputation, disregarding the law and often running afoul of those who nonetheless offered them accommodation. Further, they often lived the life of loners — you stayed where you were until the work dried up, moving on and leaving any friends or fellow vagabonds behind.

But this life of solitude didn’t mean that you didn’t look out for your fellow hobo. In fact, these transient workers found a way to help each other out — a series of glyphs known as the “hobo code.

Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to others in “the brotherhood”. A symbol would indicate “turn right here”, “beware of hostile railroad police”, “dangerous dog”, “food available here”.”

The first image shows some common hobo signs.

Next I also looked again at cuneiform, and how it evolved from pictographs to more abstract representation of characters. This also made me think about how language is evolving again to a more visual, and therefore universal, way of communicating (via memes, emojis and video-based storytelling). Particularly interesting was this article – Emojis Are Just the Next Stage of Language Evolution – which among other things discusses the concept that emojis are ideograms, representing ideas or concepts that are independent of a specific human language. An ideogram or ideograph (from Greek ἰδέα idéa “idea” and γράφω gráphō “to write”) is a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept, independent of any particular language, and specific words or phrases. Some ideograms are comprehensible only by familiarity with prior convention; others convey their meaning through pictorial resemblance to a physical object, and thus may also be referred to as pictograms. Although the article does also make the point that emojis aren’t completely universal, as different cultures interpret the same symbol differently. For example, “there’s also plenty of room for cultural interpretation, even in these little icons. Japanese emoji users have a preference for those that convey feelings with eyes, whilst Western cultures favour those expressing emotions with the mouth. So although the language-neutral emoji may seem to be an international cipher, there’s room for cultural nuances.”

Cuneiform script  is one of the earliest systems of writing, was invented by the Sumerians. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means “wedge shaped”.

During the  critical thinking group workshop, we discussed braille as a form of non-visual, tactile communication. This started me thinking about the surface of the Space Rock objects being created, and whether messages could be coded into them using this form of language.

[Braille] characters have rectangular blocks called cells that have tiny bumps called raised dots. The number and arrangement of these dots distinguish one character from another. Since the various braille alphabets originated as transcription codes for printed writing, the mappings (sets of character designations) vary from language to language, and even within one; in English Braille there are three levels of encoding: Grade 1 – a letter-by-letter transcription used for basic literacy; Grade 2 – an addition of abbreviations and contractions; and Grade 3 – various non-standardised personal stenography.

Braille cells are not the only thing to appear in braille text. There may be embossed illustrations and graphs, with the lines either solid or made of series of dots, arrows, bullets that are larger than braille dots, etc. A full Braille cell includes six raised dots arranged in two columns, each having three dots. The dot positions are identified by numbers from one to six. 64 solutions are possible using one or more dots. A cell can be used to represent a letter, number, punctuation mark, or even a word.

In the face of screen reader software, braille usage has declined. However, because it teaches spelling and punctuation, braille education remains important for developing reading skills among blind and visually impaired children, and braille literacy correlates with higher employment rates.

This also made me think about morse code, a form of communication simple to create, being a series of repetitive tones with different spacing (silences) between.

Morse code is a method of transmitting text information as a series of on-off tones, lights, or clicks that can be directly understood by a skilled listener or observer without special equipment.

And here’s the morse code sent into space with the Voyager Golden Record. For some reason combined with the sound of ship horns. The morse code message spells out Per aspera ad astra, a popular Latin phrase meaning “through hardship to the stars”.

I also looked at the Enigma machine, used by the German army for coded communications during the Second World War. During my research, I found a way to make my own paper model to crack Enigma codes. Visually, the Zygalski sheets used in initial Enigma code-breaking are intriguing.

The method of Zygalski sheets was a cryptologic technique used by the Polish Cipher Bureau before and during World War II, and during the war also by British cryptologists at Bletchley Park, to decrypt messages enciphered on German Enigma machines.

The Zygalski-sheet apparatus takes its name from Polish Cipher Bureau mathematician–cryptologist Henryk Zygalski, who invented it about October 1938. Zygalski’s device comprised a set of 26 perforated sheets for each of the, initially, six possible sequences for inserting the three rotors into the Enigma machine’s scrambler.[1] Each sheet related to the starting position of the left (slowest-moving) rotor.

The 26 × 26 matrix represented the 676 possible starting positions of the middle and right rotors and was duplicated horizontally and vertically: a–z, a–y. The sheets were punched with holes in the positions that would allow a “female” to occur.

The first set was completed in late December 1939. On 28 December part of the second set was delivered to the Polish cryptologists,[7] who had by then escaped from German-overrun Poland to PC Bruno outside Paris, France. The remaining sheets were completed on 7 January 1940,[8] and were couriered by Alan Turing to France shortly thereafter.[7] “With their help,” writes Rejewski, “we continued solving Enigma daily keys.”[3] The sheets were used by the Poles to make the first wartime decryption of an Enigma message, on 17 January 1940.

In May 1940, the Germans once again completely changed the procedure for enciphering message keys (with the exception of a Norwegian network). As a result, Zygalski’s sheets were of no use…