Puzzles in Plain Sight: Spinning Yellow Circles edition

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About six months ago, I shared the story of a secret code lurking in plain sight, sitting atop the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles. It’s not the only time that buildings have made their way into the blog; in previous posts, we’ve discussed the giant crossword adorning the side of an apartment building in Lvov, Ukraine, as well as the optical illusion awaiting art lovers in a Roman palace.

But it was the only time we’ve discussed a secret code being shared on the side of a building.

Until today, that is.

Yes, my friends and fellow puzzlers, there’s another building out there broadcasting secret messages for all to see. It’s also in California. And this one is more devious than the blinking light on the Capitol Records Building.

adobe semaphore 1

Say hello to Almaden Tower, the San Jose headquarters of Adobe, the software company behind Acrobat, Illustrator, and numerous other editing programs.

As you can see, there are four bright yellow circles beside the Adobe logo. These 10-foot-high digital lights all rotate. And if you pay enough attention, you might discover the secret message being broadcast.

The messages began transmitting in 2006. The code was cracked for the first time in 2007, and it wasn’t a brief message either. The lights were secretly transmitting the entire text of the Thomas Pynchon novel The Crying of Lot 49.

You see, the rotating circles allow for a form of semaphore alphabet, a way of secretly forming letters or symbols based on the position of each of the circles. They can be horizontal, vertical, a left-leaning diagonal, or a right-leaning diagonal. The various combinations of these positions create a semaphore alphabet of 256 possible characters.

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But this was only the first part of the encryption. Even if you uncovered and charted this pattern, you still had to decode the secret messages detailing specific key words that would help you break the Vigenere encryption of the actual text.

It took MONTHS for two tech workers to figure out the semaphore language, decipher the code, and uncover the final message.

So naturally, just like the hidden alien language in the animated sci-fi comedy Futurama, it was replaced with a second, more complex code to be unraveled.

That code, which started transmitting in 2012, wasn’t broken until 2017 when a math professor started streaming footage of the Adobe building and charting the various positions of the circles.

But his examination led him to believe that it wasn’t just text being broadcast this time… it was an audio message. After discovering a chain of symbols that he believed was a space or bit of silence in an audio broadcast, he graphed the results, which resembled an audio wave.

It turns out, his suspicions were correct, and further analysis resulted in the true audio being uncovered: Neil Armstrong’s famous message from the moon landing.

Apparently, a new code and message are currently being brainstormed for Adobe’s devious puzzle monument. Who knows what Ben Rubin, the designer, has in store for solvers this time?


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Puzzles in Plain Sight: Secret Message in Hollywood Edition!

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[Image courtesy of MathTutorDVD.]

I am fascinated by codebreaking, secret codes, and that whole subgenre of puzzle solving. Probably because I’m pretty bad at it.

Don’t get me wrong, I can crack your bog-standard cryptogram or alphanumeric message. I’m fairly good at identifying patterns and deciphering codes when it comes to simple three-, four-, and five-digit answers in most escape room scenarios.

But when you start getting into encryptions where a letter’s meaning can shift as the coded message evolves — like the one employed by a devious 10-year-old kid in a puzzly letter to Santa years ago — and I quickly find myself stymied.

It leaves me all the more impressed when I read about codebreaking efforts as ambitious as ENIGMA and as silly (and, yet, still quite impressive) as Futurama fans cracking the multiple alien codes in the show just from random snippets.

But codebreaking isn’t just about cleverness, pattern-recognition, and determination.

Sometimes, it’s about knowing where to look.

For instance, in Los Angeles, there have been secret messages being transmitted in plain sight for decades.

Just cast your eyes to the light atop the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles.

The building was designed to look like a stack of records on a turntable, complete with the spindle pointing skyward. It opened in 1956, and the president of Capitol Records at the time, Alan Livingston, wanted the light to send out a message in Morse code. On opening day, Leila Morse — the granddaughter of Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code — turned the light on.

The secret message being broadcast? “Hollywood.”

The message blinked away for decades. But it wasn’t the only message the light atop Capitol Records would send over the years.

In 1992, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Capitol Records, the code was changed to “Capitol 50” for the entire year. Then it went back to the traditional “Hollywood” code.

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A decade later, it was changed again. What was the message? A secret announcement that would excite millions of pop music fans…

“Katy Perry. Prism. October 22, 2013.”

But as far as anyone can tell, nobody noticed. This teaser announcement never made the local or national news.

And so far, there hasn’t been a secret message since. At least, not that anyone has noticed.

Still, best keep your eyes on that light. You never know if your favorite artist might send you a secret signal. And it sure beats looking for backwards messages in heavy metal songs.


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A Legend of Zelda Escape Room? Puzzles Plus Adventure!

[Image courtesy of LaCrosse Escape Room.]

Escape Room puzzles are really pushing new boundaries in terms of themes and storytelling. Horror, post-apocalypse, and other disaster themes are fairly common, and we recently discussed a escape event in Chicago with a monsters-on-the-loose theme.

So I’m definitely not surprised to see media companies getting in on the action. As it turns out, Nintendo has gotten in on the ground floor and will be producing a touring escape-the-room event this year.

The theme: The Legend of Zelda. One of the most beloved video game franchises of all time.

Defenders of the Triforce offers the opportunity for game fans and puzzlers to leap into the vast universe of the Zelda games, exploring, solving puzzles, and becoming an adventure hero just like Link!

Unlike traditional escape-the-room challenges, you’re not locked in a room with only your team. Several teams use the space at the same time to try to solve all the puzzles and “escape,” but each team has its own table to serve as a base of operations. (Though the organizers warn “you will need to get up and explore the game space in order to find all the clues. Write everything down!”)

You have to buy tickets in advance to ensure a spot at one of these events, and teams of six will participate in the game. So you can sign up with friends or sign up on your own and join a team!

[Image courtesy of Zelda.com.]

No specific Zelda game knowledge is required in order to play, but I suspect long-time fans of the Zelda games will get more out of the experience.

These are the dates announced so far:

San Francisco: Jan 31 – Feb 5 (sold out)
Los Angeles: Feb 10 – Mar 12 (sold out)
Phoenix: Feb 15 – Feb 17 (1 date with spaces left)
San Diego: Feb 23 – Feb 25 (sold out)

Further information on events in Seattle, Houston, Chicago, and New York will be announced on January 24th. And be quick on the button, because these things are clearly selling out fast!

This sounds like a perfect matching of video game puzzlers and traditional puzzle solvers, and I can’t wait to hear about the events. I’ll be sure to keep you posted, and if anyone in the PuzzleNation readership is planning on attending, let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

[You can find more details on the event here, along with links to The Legend of Zelda and SCRAP, the escape room team organizing the event.]


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