Puzzle History: Codebreaking and the NSA

[Image courtesy of NSA.gov.]

The National Security Agency has been in the news a lot over the last few years.

It arguably all started with Edward Snowden and the revelations about government surveillance, both domestic and foreign, that emerged in his wake. Between President Trump’s intimations of Obama-era wiretapping (which also supposedly involved England’s GCHQ) and recent news stories about NSA contractor Reality Winner leaking information, the NSA continues to draw mainstream attention in the 24-hour news cycle.

When you factor in the declassification of codebreaking intel during and after World War II, we know more about the NSA’s inner workings than ever before.

You might be asking what the NSA has to do with puzzles. Well, everything. Because the NSA was born as a codecracking organization.

The NSA was founded in November of 1952, but its formative stages began during World War II, as codebreakers were recruited in the U.S. starting in 1943. Not only were they tasked with tackling the German ENIGMA code, but their secondary mission was to solve “the Russian problem.” This group was known as Signals Intelligence, or SIGINT.

William Friedman, one of the early figures in American codebreaking, described cryptanalysis as “a unique profession, demanding a peculiar king of puzzle-solving mentality combined with patience. So staffing this new organization was a curious endeavor.”

Those who were recruited came from all walks of life:

Career officers and new draftees, young women math majors just out of Smith or Vassar, partners of white-shoe New York law firms, electrical engineers from MIT, the entire ship’s band from the battleship California after it was torpedoed by the Japanese in the attack on Pearl Harbor, winners of puzzle competitions, radio hobbyists, farm boys from Wisconsin, world-traveling ex-missionaries, and one of the World’s foremost experts on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Assyria.

A large campus was built that echoed the style and efforts of Britain’s Bletchley Park, including Alan Turing’s calculating machines, the bombes. Efforts on both sides of the Atlantic centered on cracking ENIGMA, the German codes used in all sorts of high-level communications. The teams worked alongside the bombes to try to determine which of the 456, 976 possible codes was being used in a given piece of communication.

It was a truly Herculean effort.

But while nearly half the staff focused on the Germans, others focused on cracking Russian codebooks, where words were translated into four-digit codes. Often, decrypting these codes involved “brute force” efforts, poring through numerous messages to pair up messages that used similar numerical groups, meaning they used the same cipher.

This would only work if the Soviets were lazy in their production of so-called “one-time pads,” encryption devices that had a particular code, which would be used once and then thrown away. Brute force codebreaking revealed that some of the one-time pads had been used more than once, a lapse in Soviet security that could work to the advantage of U.S. intelligence.

That deduction led to another stunning discovery: cracking the system used in encrypted messages to tell agents which encryption was used in a given missive. You see, each encoded message contained within it a code that dictated the cipher necessary to decrypt the message.

The Russians would later complicate this work by employing multiplexers: devices that would transmit numerous messages at once, making it harder to separate one message from another in the same dispatch.

[Image courtesy of Virtantiq.com.]

The Germans would unwittingly aid the US in their Russian codebreaking efforts when a POW camp in Bad Aibling, Germany, was captured by the US army, and they uncovered a German device designed to “de-multiplex” Russian messages. The device was called the HMFS, because Hartmehrfachfernschreiber, while a great deal of fun to type, is hard to say quickly.

After World War II ended, U.S. intelligence consolidated their efforts on “the Russian problem,” continuing their work unraveling the Russian codebooks. Slowly, the codemasters began determining which organizations in the Soviet government used which codes. Even if the codes weren’t broken yet, it helped the intelligence community organize and prioritize their efforts.

The problem? They had a very tight timeframe to work in. Those duplicated codebooks were produced during a very small window of time in 1942, and only issued to Soviet agents in the three years that followed. By 1947, SIGINT analysts knew the Soviets would soon run out of the duplicated pads. Once they did, those recurring patterns of encrypted numbers would stop, and the best chance for cracking the Soviet codes would be lost.

Still, there was reason to be encouraged. Some important code words had been identified. TYRE was New York City, SIDON was London, and CARTHAGE was Washington; ENORMOZ appeared often enough that they determined it referred to atomic bomb research in Los Alamos.

It would also be revealed, through careful analysis of decrypted intel, that Soviet agents were embedded in both the U.S. Justice Department and in England’s Bletchley Park campus. The Justice Department agent was identified and tried, but released after the court found insufficient evidence to place her under surveillance in the first place.

This was one consequence of the secrecy surrounding codebreaking: an unwillingness to reveal their codebreaking success by turning over evidence of it. (As for the Bletchley Park spies, one was identified in 1951 and confessed in 1964. The other was never identified.)

By this time, the Russians had gone over ENIGMA machines captured during the German retreat, and had unraveled not only how the devices worked, but how to improve upon them. This would lead to the next-generation Russian Fialka machine.

With ever-increasing complexity when it came to encryption, thanks to increased automation, codebreaking evolved into not just intelligence work, but intelligence analysis. After all, if you don’t know something is important, you don’t necessarily give it the attention it deserves. As researcher Stephen Budiansky put it, “The top translators at Bletchley were intelligence officers first, who sifted myriad pieces to assemble an insightful whole.”

It also led to bigger, faster machines, like Goldberg and Demon, two computation machines designed to more efficiently pore over the vast amount of encrypted information being intercepted by the various U.S. intelligence services.

In 1948, though, the game changed. It changed so dramatically that November 1, 1948, is still remembered in NSA circles as Black Friday.


I hope you’re enjoying this look at the early days of America’s codebreaking efforts. Part 2 will continue next week, with a look at the rise of the NSA, Cold War cryptography, and more!

[Quotes and certain photos were sourced from Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union by Stephen Budiansky.]


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Collection 23: New Puzzle Sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords App!

Hello puzzlers and PuzzleNationers! Happy Friday!

Our latest puzzle set for the Penny Dell Crosswords App just launched for both iOS and Android users, and it’s one of our best yet!

Collection 23 has arrived!

For the prolific puzzlers and savvy solvers among you, we’ve just launched the perfect puzzle bundle, designed for any skill level!

You can grab any of the Collection 23 puzzle sets, which range from easy to medium to hard, each one featuring 30 topnotch puzzles!

Or you can pick up one of the Collection 23 puzzle combos, which offer 60 easy puzzles or 60 medium puzzles for your solving enjoyment!

But that’s not all! You can always opt for the Collection 23 Value Pack, which offers 150 easy, medium, and hard puzzles designed to satisfy and challenge any puzzler!

You can’t go wrong with these awesome deals! PuzzleNation is dedicated to bringing you the best puzzle-solving experience available, with world-class puzzles right in your pocket, ready to go at a moment’s notice! That’s the PuzzleNation guarantee.

Happy solving, everyone!


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Tackling the 2017 Indie 500 Puzzles!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

June 3 marked the third annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, and Angela Olsen Halsted. The first tournament had a racing theme, the second had a prom theme, and this year was time-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and after a few weeks, I had the opportunity to sit down and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


[Image courtesy of IW Magazine.]

Puzzle 1: Before and After by Angela Olson Halsted

The opening puzzle got solvers off to a quick start with a well-constructed grid and some very accessible cluing. The theme had phrases where both words were connected when the word “TIME” was placed between them. For instance, HAMMER BANDITS combined HAMMER TIME and TIME BANDITS.

The hook made for a terrific introductory puzzle, setting the stage for more challenging crosswords to come. It was an excellent way to set the pace.

Interesting grid entries included SLIM JIMS, LAPDOG, and FAJITA, and my favorite clue was “Fourth name on a typical list of Santa’s reindeer” for VIXEN.

Puzzle 2: Jam Session by Paolo Pasco

The second puzzle of the day was all about CRUNCH TIME (as the revealer explained), and solvers had to figure out how to “jam” the correct theme answers into the limited grid space. Savvy solvers glommed onto the fact that each compressed entry (placing two letters in a single grid box) included a period of time (WEEK for FASHION WEEK, DECADE for THE ME DECADE, etc.).

Pasco’s CRUNCH TIME wordplay was well-represented in the cluing as well, as the last ten down clues were “rushed” — printed with spelling errors and other shortcuts. It was a fun way to reflect the theme further, and added a lot of personality to the cluing.

Interesting grid entries included NOT SO FAST, ALL THAT, LAUTRECA, and ALI PASHA, and my favorite clue was either “Connecting words?” for I DO or “The few, the proud (and the abbreviated)” for USMC.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Puzzle 3: This Mashup’s for the Byrds by Tracy Bennett

Tracy Bennett brought a lyrical touch to the proceedings with this puzzle which not only namedropped a few time-based song titles, but also had punny themed clues written in the style of The Byrds’ song Turn Turn Turn. For instance, the clue “a time to be borne” led solvers to THE RAPTURE.

There was also a very impressive bit of wordplay involving how the 4 themed clues were written. Each was modified with a single letter — “a time to trend” instead of “a time to rend,” for example. These extra letters spelled out the answer RENT in 80-down (which was cited in another down clue). That’s some quality construction right there.

Interesting grid entries included BROAD CITY, TOE TAP, ISSA RAE (across two answers) and FEMINISTA, and my favorite clue was either “Cheap but inviting letters” for BYO, “Change one’s locks?” for DYE, or “Norman patronymic with ‘Gerald’ or ‘Hugh'” for FITZ.

Puzzle 4: Non-Linear Narratives by Erik Agard featuring Allegra Kuney

The toughest puzzle of the tournament thus far, Puzzle 4’s theme entries involved phrases which included animals, but not only were the animals replaced with their younger or older versions (KANGAROO for JOEY in PAL JOEY, for instance), but the animal portion of the phrase also read backward! So in the case of FROG IN ONE’S THROAT, the actual answer read ELOPDAT IN ONE’S THROAT.

Those entries were supported by the revealers GETTING UP THERE (for KANGAROO and RABBIT, since they were progressing from baby to adult) and BUTTONING UP (for TADPOLE and HATCHLING, since they were progressing from adult to baby like Benjamin Button). And all four were cited in the answer JUMPING AROUND IN TIME, offering a final touch of wordplay for solvers to enjoy.

Interesting grid entries included LENINIST, AM I HIGH, TIRAMISU, RING SIZE, and CHEERIO, and my favorite clue was either “Spot for a banjo” for KNEE or “Poet hidden (not very well) in this clue” for POE.

[Image courtesy of tutsplus.com.]

Puzzle 5: In Search of Lost Time by Neville Fogarty

The manipulation of time and space continued in Puzzle 5, as the word ERA was removed from some themed entries and inserted in others, giving us answers like OP(era)TION DESERT STORM and (ERA)SURE THING.

The construction is topnotch and the fill interesting, making for a nice palate cleanser and a really fun solve after the more strenuous efforts of Puzzle 4.

Interesting grid entries included MR. MOTO, NABBIT, HEE HAW, and FIERI, and my favorite clue was easily “Word clued as ‘Modern messages’ in a 1995 New York Times crossword” for FAXES.

Puzzle 6: Downs Only? by Andy Kravis

The closing puzzle of the tournament was offered in two difficulty levels: the Inside Track (designated for solvers who finished in the top 25% of the field in a crossword tournament with published standings in the past 5 years) and the Outside Track (designated for everyone else). I opted for the Inside Track, then looked over the cluing for the Outside Track.

The closing puzzle of the tournament is usually the most difficult, but this year, they threw a curveball at the competitors:

You will not receive all the clues at the start of this puzzle. Instead, you will start the puzzle with only the down clues. However, you may be able to figure out what happened to the rest of the clues while you are solving the puzzle. If you think you have figured out what happened to the rest of the clues, tell the official standing next to you. If you are correct, you will immediately be given the rest of the clues.

Some solvers make a habit of attempting to solve a crossword with only one set of clues, so using only the down clues wouldn’t trip up the most elite solvers. But for the rest of us, what a diabolical twist! (The theme entries spelled out that the missing Across clues were on the back of the whiteboard the competitors were filling in.)

The grid itself was packed long entries, but the tight construction left little room for crosswordese or obscurity to throw you off-track. It’s a great grid with some brutal cluing.

Interesting grid entries abounded in this one, including CAIMAN, MIND ERASER, YUCATAN, GESTAPO, and OSSO BUCO, and my favorite clues were either “The planets, e.g.” for OCTET (alas, poor Pluto), “Part of many a wedding toast” for ANECDOTE, or “Sea whose eastern basin dried up completely in 2014” for ARAL. (That area so often clued as a sea is in fact now referred to as the Aralqum Desert, and it’s nice to see crossworders picking up on that.)


Overall, this was the best Indie 500 yet. The puzzles mixed the inventiveness of the first two tournaments with a steadier hand and some really clever cluing. The constructors made the most of the time theme, resulting in some super-impressive wordplay and theme ideas. All in all, this was an engaging and worthy series of puzzles, designed to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!

Note: There were additional puzzles included in the puzzle packet, but since they were outside the regular tournament puzzles, I didn’t review them. But believe me, they are worth your time, particularly Tracy Bennett’s immensely fun “To Everything There Is a Season” companion puzzle.


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Codecrafting with Crosswords!

We’ve discussed ciphers and codecracking numerous times in the past, and rightly so. It’s a style of puzzling that has literally affected the outcomes of battles, helped shape key historical moments, and changed the face of spycraft.

And it’s a puzzle form that continues to evolve to this day. We’ve moved far beyond the simple one-to-one replacement encryptions of your standard newspaper cryptogram, and intrepid solvers are always looking for newer and more devious ways to conceal their messages.

Tumblr user Cipherface has cooked up a pretty ingenious system that actually uses another style of puzzling in its execution: crosswords.

Here’s how it works. You write your message out in the open spaces of the crossword, ignoring the black squares.

Then, map out this diagonal path as the first step to encrypting your message.

Do the same with the puzzle’s answer key, and you’ve got your running key, the text used to substitute letters for the letters in your actual message.

Then you run your message through the tabula recta, a table where you use the letter you want revealed and the letter in your running key to pick the letter in your encryption.

Here, we can see Cipherface mapping out the encrypted message using this method.

From the Tumblr writeup:

The idea is to use a crossword puzzle for the transposition and the answers to the previous weeks puzzle as a running key. And the blank spaces are used to insert nulls into the final ciphertext. You then mail it to a friend who uses the date it was mailed to decide which puzzle to use for decryption.

It’s a pretty clever way to leave your encryption key in plain sight, and yet keep your messages secret. The running key keeps changing, so it’s more effective than traditional running keys, which stayed the same for longer periods of time.

Not to mention, using the puzzle’s publishing date? What a quick and easy way to keep your friend informed in an innocuous way. You’d just need to decide ahead of time which newspaper to use.

And it figures. The best way to make a puzzle better? Add another puzzle.


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Pun in the Sun! It’s a Summer Wordplay Party!

Oh yes, it’s that time again! It’s to unleash our puzzly and punny imaginations and engage in a bit of sparkling wordplay!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or @midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellSummerPuzzles, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles and vacations, the summer months, surf movies, camp, activities… anything and everything you associate with summer!

Examples include Summer Triangles, Beach Blanket Bingo, or Suntan-glewords!

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


Summertime, and the Living is Easy Sudoku

School’s Out of Place for Summer

Camp Tanglewood

Which Way to San Jose Words

Summer lovin’, had me a blips

You’re invited to a neighborhood block party; come at 6’s and 7’s

Cancellations my reservation

Summerdoku

Picknic and Choose

Hopscotch the globe

Middle of the Road Warrior

Sisterhood of the Traveling Spanners

Grand Tourist Trap

The End-of-the-Line-less Summer

Rods & Wheels

Word Maze Runner

Kakuro Vs. the Volcano

A Perfect Hang Ten

Annetagrams Funicello

Fiddler’s Crab Frame

Surfs-Up and Downs

Ups and Dunes

Sun’rays’ burn

Junebox Jumble

Abagust

I Know What You Did First and Last Summer / Insiders Know What You Did Last Summer

Catalina Caperfect Fit

Bit Sand Pieces

Bricks Sand Mortar / Bricks and S’mortar

Surfin’-sert-a-Bird

Take a Letter from Camp

Point the Way Home


There were a few submissions that deserve their own section, as several of our intrepid puzzlers went above and beyond.

-Glossing and Burning in Extreme Sundoku

-Exchange Boardwalks featuring Ice Cream Dots and Dashes

-Have a nice cool “coco nutty crossword” smoothy!

-“Rapid Reader Encounters Bookworms on Word Trails; You Can Take It From There”

And one solver took it to an entirely unexpected rhyming level:

Kellermans we come together, Simon Says as one
We have Shared-a-Letter seasons Takeout, Piggybacks, and fun.
Summer days will soon be Odds & Evens, soonly Autumn starts
And tonight our Mixmaster whispers softly in our Heads & Tails.


Have you come up with any Penny Dell Summer Puzzles entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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5 Questions for Artist and Game Designer Jennifer Hrabota Lesser

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Jennifer Hrabota Lesser as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Jennifer Hrabota Lesser is an artist. Whether it’s commissioned artwork, passion projects of her own, or design work for board games and video games, she adds a personal touch to every piece she works on.

Initially getting into the game industry as a way to pay off student loans, she has since gone on to build a small board game company, Wild Power Games, with her husband. She also teaches a summer class on game design at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Jennifer was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Jennifer Hrabota Lesser

1.) How did you first get into puzzles and games?

I’ve always loved puzzles and games. I think that I’ve always found them to be very calming. As a kid, puzzle books were a great way to get through long car rides. (Back in the days before iPhones!) These days, they are a way to unwind and calm down.

I am definitely a gamer, I adore board games and table top games. I also find Sudoku very soothing and meditative.

2.) I had the pleasure of scrolling through the art on your website, and there’s a really wonderful trend of reaching out that seems to suffuse many of your works. People holding each other, or finding themselves enveloped by things like flowers. Is that an intentional theme, either for your site or for your art in general, or just something I pulled from this sampling of your work?

Connection is an ongoing theme in my work, both connection with other people and connection with nature. I try to portray my subjects in transitional moments, where they may be at a point of finding a deeper connection with someone, or they may feel as if something has just been lost — the moments of feeling untethered. I believe understanding our connection with those around us is important to our health and happiness as individuals and as a society.

3.) How does your art inform your work in games, and vice versa?

My work is strongly influenced by mythology and fables, and the games I work on are often character-centered. I really enjoy working on games that have a story, and I think the same applies to my artwork. There is often an implied narrative in the work I’m doing.

I often like to portray strong female characters, finding their power. Years ago I got to design some great female characters for Guitar Hero 2, which was a blast because I love playing guitar and women tend to be underrepresented in rock. More recently I was able to design some of my favorite goddesses for our tabletop game High Heavens. I particularly loved painting Nut and Isis from the Egyptian pantheon. Illustrating The Mother of Dragons for a recent Game of Thrones expansion was also pretty great.

4.) What’s next for Jennifer Hrabota Lesser?

I am working on a poker deck that will be featuring my artwork, which is going to be an intense undertaking, but one that I am excited about!

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, artists, aspiring game designers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Whatever your creative path is, find time to do it every day. Create when you are inspired, but create when you are uninspired, push through the times when you aren’t feeling it, to get into the habit of working. I love the quote by Pablo Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

We work and work, and sometimes when we least expect it, something amazing happens. It won’t happen if you aren’t doing the work in the first place.


A huge thank you to Jennifer for her time. Be sure to check out her website for the latest updates on all her marvelous endeavors!

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