The Internet is a strange thing, a virtual photographer’s jacket crammed with countless pockets of enthusiasts. For example, you beautiful cipher mysteries fans circulate within one bijou (but nicely-appointed) pocket, while the massed legions of Slashdot fans have a Tardis-style hyperzoom lens pocket all of their own. But… what would happen if these two worlds collided?
A chance to find out came in December 2009, when Edith Sherwood’s The-Voynich-Manuscript-was-made-by-Leonardo-da-Vinci-so-it-was website got picked up by Slashdot. From the 4900 overspill visits Cipher Mysteries got at the time, I estimated that she must have had “(say) 30000 or more” visits. This was probably about right, because in the few days since the same thing happened to Cipher Mysteries last weekend, its visit counter has lurched up by 38,000+. The onslaught started on Saturday night, when at its peak the Cipher Mysteries server was getting a new visitor roughly every second. By late Sunday, however, the story had finally slid off the bottom of the Slashdot front page (which only ever lists the ten most recent news items), at which point the tsunami turned into merely a large river.
According to the server logs, my Slashdotted Chaocipher page was read in 132 countries (USA 52%, Canada 8%, UK 7.5%, Australia 5.4%, etc), while US Slashdotters were mainly from California, Texas, New York, Washington, followed by another long tail. And OK, I know it’s a biased sample, but it was nice to see Internet Explorer in less than 8% of the browsers. One long-standing stereotype did fall by the wayside, though: there was a relative absence of trolls leaving snarky comments. Might Slashdot be *gasp* growing up? 😉
Actually, the nicest thing about the whole episode for me was that Moshe Rubin’s brother in Florida was unbelievably impressed when he saw Moshe’s name pop up on Slashdot. I know it’s only a small thing, but I’m really pleased for the guy, he deserves credit for his hard work and persistence bringing the Chaocipher out into the light.
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Some quick follow-up thoughts on the Chaocipher…
It strikes me that Byrne’s neologism “Chaocipher” was remarkably prescient for 1918, because the whole idea of “chaos theory” – as per Wikipedia, “the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions“, AKA ‘the butterfly effect’ – had not long before that been started by Henri Poincaré. The French mathematician had shown that the classical three-body problem sometimes yielded tricksy outcomes that never converged (i.e. to a collision) nor diverged (i.e. to increasing distance from each other), but where the three bodies were somehow trapped in a dynamically constrained yet utterly mad-looking (OK, he actually said ‘nonperiodic’) manner. Yet after this promising beginning in the 1880s, the ‘chaos’ concept’s journey onwards was a particularly arduous (and non-obvious) one: even though people noticed the signatures of this odd behaviour in many different contexts, they had no comfortable vocabulary to describe it until well after Benoit Mandelbrot and Edward Lorenz in the 1960s.
And so I find it neatly uncanny that the Chaocipher appropriates the “chaos” word 50 years earlier than it should, while at the same time exactly demonstrating the properties that contemporary mathematicians now ascribe to it (i.e. “deterministic chaos”). As the cipher’s twizzling steps subtly mangle the order of the letters on the two rotors, both the error propagation and the cipher system complexity sharply ramp up over time, in a (quite literally) chaotic way: to my eyes, Byrne’s Chaocipher is no less artful and pleasing than any Mandelbrot set I’ve ever seen. However, because its mechanism was not disclosed until this year (2010), it is perhaps best thought of part of the secret history of applied chaos: by way of comparison, the earliest paper on “chaotic cryptography” I’ve found was Baptista’s “Cryptography with chaos” in Physics Letters A (1998) [mentioned online here].
So, it might be that as the full story behind the Chaocipher emerges from Byrne’s papers, we’ll discover that he cleverly applied Poincaré’s and Hadamard’s ideas to cryptography: but – between you and me – I somehow doubt that this is what really happened. In my mind, there’s something both ham-fistedly mathematical and deviously mechanical about the Chaocipher, that makes its mongrelly combination of Alberti’s cipher wheel and movable circular type something that could (in principle, at least) have been devised any time since about 1465. All the same, I think that the single aspect of the Chaocipher that most makes it resemble an out-of-place artifact is that it is a pure algorithm made solid – a bit like a programming hack devised by someone who had never seen a computer. Perhaps programming is closer to carpentry than we think!
Without doubt, the Chaocipher lies just outside the rigid mathematical confines of the cipher development path laid down by the sequence of crytographers since Alberti: and so for me, the most inspiring lesson to be learned from it is that genius need take only a single step sideways to become utterly unrecognizable to the mainstream. Thinking again about the Voynich Manuscript’s cipher, might that too merely stand a single conceptual step beyond our tightly-blinkered mental range? Furthermore, might that also ultimately turn out to be part of the same secret history of applied chaos? It’s certainly an interesting thought…