The Gravity Falls Cipher Hunt!

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It’s sad when your favorite show goes away, particularly when it feels like there could have been so much more to enjoy. As someone who routinely seems to discover hidden gems on TV, only for them to vanish a season or two into promising runs, I know this better than most. (Alas, Brimstone, Now and AgainTwin Peaks, Better Off Ted, and others…)

The fans of the Disney Channel animated series Gravity Falls endured similar sadness when the show wrapped up its two-season run earlier this year. (Although it was the decision of the showrunner to end the show and not the network in this case, it was still a sad day for fans.)

From the Wikipedia article on this Twin Peaks-fueled program:

For their summer vacation, 12-year-old twins Dipper and Mabel Pines are dropped off from their home in Piedmont, California to the fictitious town of Gravity Falls, Roadkill County, Oregon to live with their Great Uncle Stan Pines (often shortened to Grunkle Stan), who runs a tourist trap called Mystery Shack. Things are not what they seem in this small town, and with the help of a mysterious journal that Dipper finds in the forest, they begin unraveling the local mysteries.

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The show was big on supernatural storytelling and puzzles to unravel, even including ciphers at the end of each episode that incorporated classic encryption techniques like Caesar ciphers, Vigenere ciphers, and others. This is pretty high-level stuff for a show that’s supposedly for kids. (Then again, plenty of adults enjoy a quality animated show, and Gravity Falls was critically acclaimed for good reason.)

In the series finale of the show, there was a brief shot of a statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher, but it appeared to be a photograph rather than an animated image.

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Speculation immediately ran rampant as fans wondered if there was really a Bill Cipher statue somewhere.

And there was.

Cue the Gravity Falls Cipher Hunt, a world-spanning puzzle hunt launched on July 20, 2016, where fans teamed up to crack clues offered by show creator Alex Hirsch, all in the hopes of tracking down this mysterious statue.

Although the main thrust of the hunt was centered around the United States, clues appeared in places as far-flung as Russia and Japan, requiring a truly global effort of cooperative fandom to crack each mystery.

And the creator himself was astonished when the entire hunt was solved in just two weeks, as fans pieced together the last fragment of the puzzle on August 2: a missing section of parchment that corresponded to a map of a forest in Reedsport, Oregon.

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[Click here for a rundown of the entire puzzly saga.]

Awaiting the intrepid solvers was not only did the statue of Bill Cipher, but a treasure chest with messages that could only be read under black light. Also, in a truly brilliant bit of fan service, there was a sash and crown inside the chest that would anoint the wearer as the mayor of Gravity Falls! (Hirsch even went on to say that this appointment is now canon for the show!)

And, as it turns out, they found the statue just in time, as a property dispute between neighbors has led the statue to be taken in by police until the situation is resolved!

This is not only an outstanding example of real-world puzzling in its own right, but a wonderful thank you from a creator to his fans, providing one last challenge, one last story, to the people who’d most appreciate it. Nicely done, Mr. Hirsch, and nicely done, Gravity Falls fans!

[Also, nicely done to Owen, and his mom, friend of the blog Chris Begley, for bringing this story to my attention.]


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Let’s crack some Confederate codes!

[A table for cracking Vigenere ciphers.]

Cryptography is probably the only puzzly skill in history upon which lives have depended. The movements of troops, plans for invasion, locations of key officers, spies, and personnel… all of these vital pieces of information have been encoded numerous times across numerous conflicts, all in the hopes of keeping that data from prying eyes.

It’s not as if anyone has to solve a crossword to prevent a Dennis Hopper-esque madman from wreaking havoc on Los Angeles, or the outcome of a pivotal battle hinged on someone finding all the words in a word seek faster than the enemy.

But cryptography is both a delightful diversion and deadly serious, depending on the context.

Which makes it all the more curious that it took more than a hundred years for a Confederate message from the Civil War to be decoded.

The coded message was first displayed in The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia in 1896, after being donated by Captain William A. Smith, a member of Walker’s Greyhounds, a division of Texans fighting for the Confederacy.

The actual message was unknown. The rolled-up slip of paper was tied with a linen thread and placed in a small glass vial along with a .36-caliber lead pistol bullet, and stoppered shut. (The bullet was included in order to make the vial heavy enough to be tossed into the river and sink if the scout carrying it was in danger of being captured.)

The mysterious message was meant for General John C. Pemberton, the Confederate general attempting to protect and defend Vicksburg from the army of Union Major General Ulysses S Grant. The same general who would surrender Vicksburg to Grant on July 4, 1863 after 47 days under siege.

But the message never got to Pemberton. Instead, it ended up as part of a Civil War museum, its message undelivered, its code unbroken.

Until 2008, when curiosity among museum staff led to an unveiling a century later than intended. The message was photographed and then returned to the glass vial, which itself was then returned to its display.

And the message intended for General Pemberton?

SEAN WIEUIIZH DTG CNP LBNXGK OZ BJQB FEQT FEQT XZBW JJOA TK FHR TPZWK PBW RYSQ VOWPZXGG OEPF EK UASFKIPW PLVO JKZ HMN NVAEUD XYE DWRJ BOYPA SX MLV FYYRDE LVPL MEYSIN XY FQEO NPK M OBPC FYXJFHOHT AS ETOV B OCAJDSVQU M ZTZV TPJY DAW FQTI WTTJ J DQGOAIA FLWHTXTI QMTR SEA LVLFLXFO.

Unlike many simple coding techniques, this is not a Caesar cipher where each letter is simply another letter of the alphabet in disguise. (Every E is actually an L, every F an M, etc.)

This is a Vigenere cipher, where a key word or phrase is required to unlock the letter substitution involved. For centuries, this cipher was considered unbreakable, though this was no longer the case by the time of the Civil War. (The Union regularly cracked coded Confederate messages.)

By 2008, Vigenere ciphers were easily cracked by amateur and professional cryptographers alike, and the Confederate message was finally revealed to the world:

Gen’l Pemberton, you can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen’l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy’s line. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps. I subjoin despatch from Gen. Johnston.

Essentially, the message means that the reinforcements Pemberton was hoping for to shore up Vicksburg’s defenses weren’t coming.

But the message never got to the general, because before the scout arrived with the bad news, Vicksburg had already fallen, and Pemberton had surrendered.

So instead, the scout, having somehow realized from afar that Vicksburg was lost, returned to his camp and handed the unopened message to a Captain Smith, the same man who would later donate the message to the Museum.

And an enduring mystery was born.

[I learned of this story in the book Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You by Harriet Baskas, which also inspired my post a few weeks ago about the Morris Museum music box.]

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PuzzleNation Book Reviews: The Code Busters Club, Case #3

Welcome to the ninth installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

Our book review post this time around features Penny Warner’s third Code Busters Club novel, The Mystery of the Pirate’s Treasure.

I regularly get questions from fellow puzzlers who are looking for fun ways to get their kids into math, science, history, and other subjects through the media of board games or puzzles. Sadly, I don’t always have the picture-perfect recommendation for them prepped and ready in my back pocket, gift-wrapped for delivery.

That’s what makes stumbling upon a book tailor-made for encouraging both reading AND a love of puzzles such a delight. And if you’re looking for a gateway book for scavenger hunts or coded puzzles, look no further than The Code Busters Club series.

When there’s a puzzle to be unraveled or a code to be cracked, you can count on the crafty quartet known as the Code Busters. Friends Cody Jones, Quinn Kee, Luke LaVeau, and M.E. Esperanto are ready at a moment’s notice to put their codecracking skills to the test, and a field trip to Carmel Mission might be the perfect opportunity. There are some shifty characters lurking about, but with rumors of a pirate’s treasure hidden nearby, what else would you expect? Can the Code Busters make history and solve the riddle of de Bouchard’s gold?

If you’re looking for a fun way to introduce coded puzzles to younger readers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a book that employs as many different styles of coding as The Mystery of the Pirate’s Treasure. Warner has clearly done her research, employing everything from Morse code and semaphore to symbols, skip codes, Caesar ciphers, alphanumerics, and more.

[A quick interlude for coded-puzzle newbies:

  • A skip code is a message wherein you skip certain words in order to spell out a hidden message concealed within a larger one.
  • A Caesar cipher, also known as a shift cipher, works by shifting the alphabet a predetermined number of letters. For instance, if you shift the alphabet 5 letters, A becomes F, B becomes G, etc.
  • An alphanumeric code (in its simplest form) replaces the letters in words with their corresponding digits on a telephone keypad. So an A, B, or C becomes 2 while G, H, or I becomes 4.

End informational interlude.]

As a puzzler with plenty of experience with coded puzzles and cryptography, I was impressed by the breadth of codes and secret messages Warner had snuck into book that’s less than 200 pages, including illustrations and a sizable typeface.

The story itself is a bit threadbare, but considering the brisk storytelling pace and the sheer number of puzzles included, it’s easy to forgive the author for providing just enough impetus to get the Code Busters (and the reader) from one puzzle to the next. After all, this is a book about friends solving puzzles, and the puzzles are dynamite introductory-level puzzles for young readers.

I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for further Code Busters Club adventures.

[To check out all of our PuzzleNation Book Review posts, click here!]

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