PuzzleNation Book Review: The Riddle of the Labyrinth

Welcome to the fifth 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 — our first nonfiction book review — features Margalit Fox’s work The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.

When archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed the first of hundreds of preserved tablets from a dig on the island of Crete, he had no idea he was unveiling a puzzle that would last for decades.

Linear B.

It has all the trappings of a classic mystery: an exotic setting, an uncrackable code, a cast of brilliant and curious people brought together to solve it, and a final, world-changing deductive leap to the finish. The Riddle of the Labyrinth is the story of how the conundrum of Linear B was resolved, framed by the life stories of the three people most responsible for conquering a 50-year mystery.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth is terrific, a perfect fusion of historical writing and investigative reporting that presents an incredible mental and deductive achievement as a slow-boil mystery, and by doing so, rewrites the established narrative to spread the credit around.

The writing is meticulous and painstakingly detailed, allowing the reader to truly understand, sometimes graphic by graphic, how each breakthrough in the solving process was made, and just how phenomenal the detective work involved truly was.

I’ve written about real-life examples of codecracking in the past, but they all pale in comparison to the enormity and complexity of what Alice Elizabeth Kober and Michael Ventris accomplished when they unraveled the riddle of Linear B.

It’s impressive in the extreme that Fox was able to make some high-level deduction and linguistic skill so easily understood by the average reader. Even fans of cryptograms and other codebreaking-style puzzles could learn a great deal from Kober’s techniques and Fox’s wonderfully thorough and easily-parsed step-by-step analysis.

By citing examples like The Dancing Men from the famous Sherlock Holmes story, Fox provides great shortcuts for the reader, removing none of the wonder of Kober and Ventris’ accomplishments while still clearing away so much potential confusion.

In short, this is science writing, history writing, and storytelling in top form. What a treat.

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Futurama

Not so long ago, I wrote a post about cryptography in the real world, highlighting moments where codebreaking made a difference in crime solving and espionage, and sometimes changed the course of history.

And while the encryptions featured in today’s entry aren’t quite as world-changing, they just as interesting.

I’m talking about the alien languages that were featured in the background of the animated television show Futurama.

At least two ciphers have been employed by the writers and animators of the show — a third is rumored to have appeared in the fourth season of the show, but there hasn’t been confirmation of that — and they’ve proven to be an engaging Easter egg for puzzle fans.

The first is called Alien Language One, or Alienese, and it appeared in the background of the show from the pilot episode onward. It’s a simple one-to-one code, with symbols for all 26 letters and 10 digits in standard English. (Supposedly it was solved by some enterprising puzzlers within a half-hour of the show’s premiere.)

A second, far more complex encryption started appearing during the show’s second season, and it’s called Alien Language Two, or Alienese II, and it’s based on an autokey cipher.

Autokey ciphers are more involved than a standard encryption, because there’s no one-to-one organizational structure. Instead, the symbol for a given letter or number can change based on the symbol that precedes it.

I’ll let the folks at the Futurama Wiki explain:

Each symbol has a numerical value. To decode a message, the first symbol’s value is translated directly into a character (0=’A’, 1=’B’, and so on). For the remaining letters, you subtract the previous symbol’s numerical value. If the result is less than zero, you add 26. Then that number is converted into a character as before.

This is some high-level puzzling, considering it’s a background joke-delivery system on an animated show. (But, considering the show does jokes about Schrodinger and throwaway gags based on mathematical principles like taxicab numbers, I’m not at all surprised.)

Of course, those puzzle-lovers at The Simpsons couldn’t help but get in on the fun, using Alienese as a background gag in a reference to the show Lost.

The masterminds at Futurama are definitely puzzlers at heart, and more than worthy of recognition in the Puzzles in Pop Culture library.

Da Vinci’s got nothing on these codes.

Cryptograms and similar coded puzzles have been a mainstay of newspapers and puzzle books for decades now, and it’s not hard to see why. Codebreaking has been a puzzler’s playground for centuries.

Back in November, the skeleton of a carrier pigeon from World War II was found, along with a coded message the dearly departed bird had been ferrying somewhere.

One of Britain’s national intelligence agencies declared that the message couldn’t be decoded without access to the original material responsible for the code.

What puzzler could resist a challenge like that?

A Canadian puzzle fiend, Gordon Young, with the help of his great-uncle’s World War I codebook, cracked the code in 17 minutes.

Now, of course, wartime codecracking stories are common, given the importance of reliable communication and strategy during combat and operations. Most people are familiar with terms like the ENIGMA machine or one-time pads.

(Codebreaking and cryptography were considered so crucial to the war effort that Agatha Christie was investigated for her novel N or M?, which featured a character named Major Bletchley, a name that made the government nervous, considering that their major codebreaking center was Bletchley Park.)

But wartime was hardly the only opportunity for codecracking to yield great results.

Among the many storied cases of San Francisco detective Isaiah Lees — a man considered one of the real-life rivals to Sherlock Holmes in terms of detection — there’s another curious case of codebreaking.

A bank robber had been arrested, and his coded journal came into Lees’ possession. When Lees cracked the code, he got much more than he bargained for.

The bank robber was no mere thief. He was William Fredericks, a man who’d killed a Nevada sheriff and provided the weapons for a Folsom prison jailbreak. It’s only due to Lees’ diligence that the murderer was duly punished for his crimes.

But the highlights of codebreaking history are hardly relegated to the past. Plenty of young puzzlers have been given the chance to flex their mental mettle in Britain, thanks to the National Cipher Challenge.

Tasked with decrypting a series of cryptic codes, thousands of students had two months to best everything from simple letter-shifting codes (known as Caesar cyphers) to much more complicated codes involving anagramming, letter-shifting, and other obfuscation techniques.

Aimed at attracting young people to math and computer science, the National Cipher Challenge is just one more example of how puzzle skills are helping pave the way to the future.

Notes:

For more info on the National Cipher Challenge, check out their website.

For more on the curious crossing of Bletchley Park and Agatha Christie, check out this terrific article on the Daily Mail.

For more on codes and codebreaking in general, I highly recommend Secret Language: Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols by Barry J. Blake.