A book club for developers.
BookBytes is a fortnightly (or biweekly) book club for developers. Each episode the hosts discuss part of a book they've been reading. And they also chat with authors about their books. The books are about development, design, ethics, history, and soft skills. Sometimes there are tangents (also known as footnotes).
(Intro music: Electro swing)
Hello, and welcome to BookBytes, a book club podcast for developers. Today we’re going over part one of “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Codebreakers of World War II” by Liza Mundy. I’m Adam Garrett-Harris.
I’m Jen Luker.
I’m Safia Abdalla.
I’m Jason Staten.
All right. So… this book has three parts, it’s kind of big, and last time we talked about the introduction. Part one gets right into, kind of, a individual story with someone named “Dot” and, kind of, each chapter has individual stories about certain people and, kind of, also an overarching thing and history stories and gets into some of the details about code breaking. So I’m just kind of interested what stood out to y’all.
One of the things that I highlighted in the section about Dot was a quote that was on page 51. For context, the book is talking about recruitment efforts to find women who would eventually be code breakers in World War II and they were talking about, you know, some of the traits that they looked for when they were recruiting for these roles and they talked about how, you know, one thing that stood out to me, there’s a line that says, “Some PhDs were hopeless at the craft of code breaking and some highschool dropouts were naturals at it.”
And they kind of discussed some of the attributes that they found generally related to someone being better at code breaking. So those who had some creative outside interest or hobby generally work out very well in comparison with those whose interests are movies or similar entertainment. And this was, kind of, like, from a memo that was sent out to discuss what they were seeing in the code breakers they were recruiting.
I thought it was an interesting parallel between some of the things that we still see today in tech culture with respect to: A) How people perceive the stuff that you do outside of your work hours as having an effect on who you are during work hours; and this kind of relates directly to the quote from the memo where they talked about how, you know, if they were into something creative on their off hours they were better than if they were just like, watching movies and all that.
So yeah, I thought it was interesting that that sort of, like, culture where people are judged by what they do in their off hours was something that was happening in the 40s and we still have that today, obviously, when we see discussions about whether companies should be recruiting based on whether people are coding in their spare time and what that means for diversity and inclusion. So that stood out to me.
Yeah, so, I mean, do you think it’s a good thing to be judged for what you do outside of work?
Hmm, I’m trying to think of an example but if it’s something like, people are judging you by whether or not you code in your spare time I’m a little bit adverse to that as opposed to if people were judging you by whether or not you, like, I don’t know, volunteered or engaged the community or seem to be the kind of person who is, like, sociable and community oriented.
I think my issue is that when you’re being hired for a position you do, kind of, want the company to look at you as a whole person and not just focus on your work history. Maybe that’s my own bias but I definitely would be more interested in organizations that, like, factored in my interests and my hobbies and my personality and all of me when they were trying to figure out whether or not o recruit me as opposed to, like, “Can she pass a whiteboard coding problem?” Or, “Can she do this?”
I don’t know that I have a good answer on this because it feels like a double edged sword. On the one hand it can be used to, kind of, discover new and unique traits about somebody based on their life experiences and see how you can bring that into the workplace. On the other hand it can be used as a tool of judgement and gatekeeping if you decide to isolate somebody, or reject them because of what they do outside of work. So, I guess I don’t know.
It also ties into unconscious bias. Like, if you like to go biking on the weekends and someone applies and they like to go biking on the weekends, are you more likely to hire them than someone who likes to knit on the weekends instead? So, I mean it becomes even deeper than a matter of, “Am I someone who goes out and works in the community or am I an introvert that really prefers to just stay at home?” You know? It’s… it’s different. So I think that as far as taking into account a whole person, does the whole person change the fact that you can do the job?
Yeah, that’s a good point. Like, I think in my perspective it’s I would only want somebody to consider it as if what they were considering added value to, like, the person’s repertoire.
You mean, like, rather than looking at something they don’t do and then counting it against them?
Yeah! Look at something they do do that is, like, a good quality.
Right, but I feel like colleges have also suffered from this in the sense that kids have increasingly had to perform major extracurricular activities and spend all of their extra time working to improve how they look on a resume just to get into college at this point.
Like, the competitiveness has gotten so high that unless you’re a straight A student and God’s gift to community service and-
Also find time to, you know, take small children biking and-
Also go mountain climbing in the Himalayas on your vacations that you never have time for, you know? It’s like, it just gets to the point that you have to do some much that you don’t have time to do something simple like, sleep.
Or make dinner.
You know? So, I mean, it kind of feeds into itself at some point. Like, at some point saying, “Well we’re only going to count the things towards you” means that if you don’t have those things to count, everyone else is always going to better than you when it comes to candidacy.
Yeah, that’s true.
And I mean, yes, and here the problem was that they didn’t have a white board item, they didn’t have the ability to sit down with you and say, “What have you coded? Let’s talk about it.” Or the ability to look at GitHub and say, “Yeah, they do, in fact, break codes in their spare time.” You know? It wasn’t even a thing back then!
So at this point it was saying, “Okay, so we have to figure out a way to determine who’s going to be a good candidate for this and who’s not?” So this was them trying to figure out what that whiteboard or job interview thing was going to be and they discovered that people that had hobbies outside, mostly artistic, were able to access parts of their brain that other people didn’t always access and exercise on a regular basis.
So it was kind of a more of an affinity for putting forth the extra effort on something that you didn’t have to do than it was… you know, a matter of, “You like to climb mountains in the Himalayas and, therefore, you’d be great at, you know, reading books to children.
Yeah, I think you brought up a really good point there. It was that this was all coming about at a time when people weren’t exactly sure how you recruit or hire for a role like that because cryptanalysis was such a new field so they didn’t necessarily have a lot of these, like, preconceived notions that we might have about, you know, GitHub streaks and commits and where you got your college degree and all of that stuff.
Although they did have the “where you got your college degree” thing and a couple of other prejudices built into there.
They did have a list of qualities as well that I think is really close to that. I just have the quote written down in my notes, that “the candidates needed literacy, numeracy, care, creativity, painstaking attention to detail, a good memory, and willingness to hazard guesses. It required tolerance for drudgery and boundless reserve of energy and optimism.
And actually, why I took that note was it actually made me think about debugging. And-
What you have to often go through today is you’re stepping through something and you have to remember three steps back where you were at and why you were there and maybe you have to take a totally random guess to stab at it and say, “I think this is why that’s going on.”
And then walking backwards to go and prove was that right or was it not at all? And I do think that while hinging on a particular activity may not be wise, that it could go and surface a bad bias to say, like, “You have to be coding all the time or otherwise you’re not a good one.”
“I mean, if your GitHub squares aren’t all green then, yeah, no job for you.”
But instead, if you go and reflect on it and see, like, “Okay, these are things that we’ve seen success in thus far, or some of the qualities that we’re looking for. Like, how can we find that in their external activity?” Like, if they are, I don’t know, pursuing something artistic, I mean that can fall under attention to detail and then also where it talked about the tolerance for drudgery? I mean hearing the description of what Dot Braden had to go through early on in the chapter where it discusses her almost running the whole High School by herself? Like, that definitely sounds like drudgery to me.
To do that for the whole year.
Something else that I want to put out as far as artist’s ability is if you’ve looked at some paintings you can see them, you know, almost microsized lines in a giant painting, the tiny little details, right? Of tiny people on hills that you almost need magnifying glasses to see.
And then there’s, you know, stuff that I do, like knitting, where, you know… Oh! I’m wearing a sweater that I made but i took 40,000 stitches to make this thing which means for hours and days and weeks and months and, depending on the project, possibly years I went from spinning the yarn to knitting it and, you know, trying to figure out a pattern, going back, fixing mistakes, doing it again, you know, working on it until the shape was right.
So, you know, it takes a lot of repetition and time and patience to sit there and do that for so long. And, you know, arts kind of teach you how to do that and they also tend to be relatively logical in some fashion or another and it’s not all just splattering paint on the canvas; it’s deciding which layers you’re going to lay down first, which pieces you’re going to work on first, which, you know, are you going to do a sleeve before you do the body? Are you going to, you know, start on the outsides of the quilt and go in? Are you going to start on the inside and go out? So, it’s a lot of which pieces have to go before the other ones in order to find this puzzle and get it put together.
So it’s being willing to logically look at a giant problem and break it down into very small pieces and repetitiously perform those pieces.
Yeah. So one of the other quotes I liked was on page 49 and it was talking how...it says, “She went back to her single room each night with a dawning awareness that as bizarre and unlikely as it might be, she, Dot Braden, ex-school teacher, graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman's College, had been hired to break enemy codes.”
And that’s so cool because she had no idea what she was signing up for. She had no idea what she was getting into. She just really just wanted to help out. I think it gave an example that they tried to even volunteer their dog to the war effort and got a letter saying that they didn’t need their dog. So, and another thing is she just wanted to get away and going to Washington DC was just very exciting.
Take a break from the life that had been planned for her.
Yeah! (laughs) I think she was also kind of getting away from a guy that wanted to marry her?
No, I don’t think that was Dot.
It was later on in the part where it was she talks about that where she had about, it said, like, five men she was keeping up with through letters?
Yeah, but two or three who were her brothers, and then-
One of them was sent her an engagement ring in the mail and she felt like she couldn’t send it back because you weren’t supposed to do anything that would affect morale negatively to the soldiers. And then he just, like, showed up unannounced one day (laughs) and tried to get her to move back with him to California.
And then his unit was looking for him when he dropped in.
Right, ‘cause they were just about to ship out and, like, they changed the time on him. Yeah, so it’s just really unfortunate that, like, a woman back then, especially during the war, couldn’t just, like, be blunt and tell a guy, “No.”
I think we had this discussion the last time when we discussed the intro of the book, which is that there was this kind of the assumption that once the war was over things would go back to normal and women would continue to maintain their domestic position in the household and the Navy did not want to have to keep employing these women and their positions long after the war.
So there was that, like, sort of sense of, like, trying to get rid of them by putting them in domestic positions as wives and mothers just so that the Navy didn’t have to worry about it. Not that it, you know, directly relates to this one personal anecdote with Dot but, for me, World War II is, like, interesting because you have this, like, all of these social norms that are, like, upended by this global crisis that’s going on and, you know, women don’t have to stay home. They can go work in a factory, they can go work as cryptographers.
And then once it’s over there is this, like, some things have to go back to normal and I think those transitions from situations where women were given a lot of freedom, and the ability to exist outside the social norms they usually exist in, because of a crisis like a war, and then having to forfeit those rights are moments where you see, like, a lot of change happening with respect to, like, people starting to advocate for women’s rights after the war and all that.
That was, like, a giant, unnecessary tangent, I feel like. (laughs)
Still, I love it!
But, yeah, it’s just interesting how war breaks the norm and opens the gateway for unusual things to happen that people can then persist after the war if they’re good, if you notice things like women being involved outside the home and outside their domestic positions.
There were a couple of reasons that were listed within there, too, about why women were brought into the field of cryptography was that the field itself, being so new, there wasn’t really a standard for measuring your rank in that sort of realm. Like, if you wanted to progress in your military career then cryptography was not a way to do it because it wasn’t known very well. It was very less renowned so it allowed more opportunity for women.
It also points to what was quoted as “the jackpot effect” where oftentimes there would be one male scientist in a field that happened to hire on a woman and then she would go and hire on more, and more, and more and then it would gradually fill up and cryptography was an instance of that.
And that actually made me think about something that can even happen today within companies, is you go into a dev shop and it’s all males and then, I know, like, the challenge involved in bringing on a woman or somebody underrepresented can be really difficult for the first one and then it can ease after that. At least, that is kind of my viewpoint of it as to how it can be.
And actually a question for both Safia and Jen, or even Adam, like, I mean, what is a way that we could go and ease that progression towards including those underrepresented groups?
It’s true. And I think another, I think even more important than hiring, is promote and advocate for them.
That’s been a particular area of interest for me just ‘cause I think the most important thing is someone at the top has to be willing to put these people in. Someone has to be willing to use their power and their privilege to advocate for these women as, Jason, you mentioned was happening in the case with the cryptographers in the war. You had men who were advocating for women and then those women were bringing in more women but at the beginning you had one person using their position of power to bring others on and I think if we had people who were from more diverse backgrounds in those positions of power you’re more likely to get that kind of diversity to emerge more organically.
But, yeah. I think hiring at this point is, like, such a low bar for companies with a respect to, like, diversity in tech. Like, no. Hire them, pay them well, promote them, make sure that they’re being recognized for their achievements. Yeah, my standards have increased dramatically (laughs).
Treat them like equals? What?
I know! It’s a wild concept.
It’s- it’s new. I know it’s brave, it’s bold but I think it’ll work.
“I think it’ll work.”
You know, there’s actually a quote on this in the book as well that I really enjoyed. So it was actually the part about Agnes Driscoll where I highlighted it and then made of fun of it in the book, itself.
So there was a part that said, “Friedman was always two to three pay grades ahead of her and I think that her feelings that that was sexist was probably true.” Said Captain Thomas Dyer, a Navy cryptanalysis who was trained by Agnes. Dyer described her as “absolutely brilliant” and ventured that she “was fully the equal of Friedman.”
So, like in here I just- That her feeling that this was sexist was “probably true” just, you know, and these are quotes from not people necessarily back then but like, much more modern going back and interviewing them about this time, right? So, I mean, it just goes to show that, again, the expectation that a woman is paid two to three pay grades lower than a man is still alive. Like, and I realize that this is part of a much older generation at this point but it still exists in living people!
So it’s still a thing! And so I, there is, in fact, a giant eye roll essentially, an emoji in my book right now.
So that was the people breaking codes during World War I, right?
Uh, yeah. Agnes Driscoll was actually the one that, going back to something that Jason said, that she worked for the Navy. So she was the Navy side whereas, like, Elizabeth Friedman and her husband were Army side and the Army treated them better than the Navy ever treated Agnes. But the problem with the Navy is that if you want to progress in your career you have to go out on the ship. You can’t sit there at a desk on shore. You’re in the Navy, not at a desk job!
So anyone who ever went to the cryptanalytics’ desks were only there for a very short period of time, one or two years maybe, and then they were gone. And Agnes Driscoll was there for, like, 30 years! She sat at that desk and she fought through these things and so a great majority of the codes that were broken in World War I and into World War II were all- the big breakthroughs were by her because she spent so many years looking at these things and so many years puzzling through them. And it also says that there wasn’t really a famous person in, like, World War II and kind of beyond that wasn’t trained by her.
So she may not have been the one to get all of the glory but all of the people that she trained were. So she started it.
Yeah. I think, I really like the anecdote because it has such interesting parallels. It kind of relates to something that I’ve heard from anecdotes from women in the industry who’ve been around for longer than I have is that women do tend to take on positions where they’re educating team members and kind of communicating knowledge across the team. But that labor of teaching others isn’t necessarily recognized, although the indirect effects of it, you know, people being more productive, shipping more code, getting more features in, is recognized by the people who end up leveraging that knowledge but, like, the effort of the women to teach and to share knowledge within the technical team isn’t appreciated in and of, itself.
So yeah, there is, I think, teaching is, like, an emotional labor that isn’t necessarily appreciated a whole ton in teams from anecdotes that I’ve heard.
Yeah. I really like that term, “emotional labor.”
There’s also a line at the end of one of these chapters that says, “As crushing as Pearl Harbor was, it was thanks in large part to Driscoll’s decades-long detective work- and to the example Elizabeth Friedman set for other women- that America did not enter the second World War quite as blind as it might have seemed.”
So, yes, they kind of had a perform storm of issues that had happened right before and as Pearl Harbor was being bombed but it was the fact that these people and these women, specifically, had spent so much of their lives dedicated to this science that ended up being partly art (laughs) that allowed us to… jump leaps and bounds once World War II started.
You know? They wouldn’t necessarily have brought in 20,000 women if it hadn’t been for the fact that they had seen the work that Agnes Driscoll and Elizabeth Friedman were performing, the contributions that they had made, the codes that they had cracked. So the stories of World War II, and as they go on, are all based on the foundations and the knowledge that these women discovered over time. The breakthroughs that they had made.
Yeah, and I thought it was interesting how between World War I and II the U.S., their cryptography department almost disappeared and then Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state was shocked to learn that they were cracking codes and cut off the state department funding, explaining that “gentlemen do not read one another’s mail.”
Which is actually something which is quite quoted a lot but it’s funny because if you’re looking at, like, European gentleman that he’s referring to, they did it all the time and they had been for hundreds of years, you know?
It was the purpose of steaming people’s mail open to find out what’s going on to develop blackmail for political gain, you know? There’s all sorts of espionage and blackmail and bribery that happens throughout history and that very deeply shaped history. So it was very naive to come in and say, “I can’t believe that you’re reading the mail of someone who could very well be our enemy so we’re going to shut you down.”
But what I think is funny is his response to that is to basically write a tell-all book. Like, how American is that?
Also another quote I really liked is on page 79. Something Agnes Driscoll liked to say was, “Any man-made code could be broken by a woman.”
That’s a good one. Put that on our shirt.
And a plaque, and a cross stitch pillow.
(laughs) Coffee mugs, hats, start up a merch line.
(laughs) So I did a little bit of digging on Elizabeth Smith, or I guess not specifically her, but from her story that was discussed in there, Elizabeth Smith who became Elizabeth Friedman, she went and worked at the Riverbank Estate for George Fabyan and the wealthy guy who, he wasn’t very smart or, like, formerly trained education-wise and so to deal with his insecurities he funded research projects that he felt would be worth spending time on.
And one of the things that is said that he was intrigued by was the potential that Shakespeare’s works were not actually written by Shakespeare but rather by this guy who worked the printing press, Bacon.
Sir Francis Bacon.
Yeah! And at the time Fabyan had the thought that there was some sort of... biliteral cipher is what it was referred to as, is using a series of letters to represent a, like, one single letter but rather than using letters themselves using, like, the sizing and spacing of letters on the printing press in order to encode messages within the original Shakespeare printed works.
And I don’t know quite what the state is of that specific theory but there is a more modern dating into the 80s by a author named Penn Leary and they wrote the book: “The Cryptographic Shakespeare” where they had the theory that Bacon had used a Caesar cipher which is to move a letter forward or backwards. So say, for example, you were to go and have a Caesar cipher of 2, then As would get turned into Cs and Cs would get turned into Es and so forth; and Leary thought that Bacon had used a Caesar cipher of 4 characters and 4 characters within a smaller alphabet range that was, like, 21 characters because some letters didn’t exist on the printing press at the time, like, for example a ‘w’ was consisting of 2 ‘v’s side-by-side. And-
Or double ‘u’s
Right- yeah. And yeah. Also use reused v’s as well, yeah. So what Leary found was that Bacon could be formed by going and running it through that cipher you could find the word “Bacon” and various spellings of it all over. Like, you could find b-a-c-o-n but you could also find b-a-q-u-i-n and any other mashup of vowels and, I guess consonants with a (cuh) sound in there, forward and backwards.
And somebody by the name of Terry Ross went and debunked Penn Leary’s theory on that by going and finding the number of English forms that could actually produce the word “bacon” using an assortment of spellings like that and there are... there are about 1.8 million combinations forward and then also in reverse. Leary claimed that it was in there as well.
And so amongst the, like, 3 million string combinations in there, like, he found not even that many in Shakespeare’s works. There are actually more of them found within the New Testament and so he goes to say, like, “Did Bacon actually print the New Testament, or authored the New Testament, as well?” And a whole bunch of other works like, “Hiawatha” and such where “Hiawatha” itself, actually, under that same cipher produces “bacon.”
But was just kind of curious about it and what modern thoughts are and, I mean, as late as the 80s, like, there are still people who are still pushing for theories that Shakespeare did not author works and assuming that it is Bacon. So total tangent, I have a link to share on it because I thought it was interesting and so I will pass it along to all of you.
Those theories actually still do exist and, you know, I think the grand theory has finally come down to, you know, if you give a monkey a typewriter, eventually they will type Shakespeare.
Just out of probability’s sake.
And it’s, it’s really smart people that have dabbled in these kind of systems, too. It mentions Thomas Jefferson-
And, let’s see, I know Isaac Newton, as well.
I find stories like that so fascinating ‘cause it’s so interesting to see where people will, like, take the natural, I guess, human trait of pattern recognition and then, like, their own biases and imagination and you can, like, you can validate so many of your own biases and perceptions just by finding the right patterns.
So it’s always interesting to see, like, stories of people who are, like, all chasing down this, like, one conspiracy theory or are convinced about this one thing and find different ways of seeing it in a piece of text or a song or whatever.
You know what else is interesting about this is the fact that the whole concept of breaking codes and then, you know, coming up with better codes and then breaking those codes very much comes down to not just codes for wartime but also data encryption on computers and how, you know, we have hackers that try to break those. So they’re talking about how, like, Agnes for instance, was one of the very original hackers that would break encryption codes.
So trying to put it a little bit into, you know, our thought processes is that she did that as well. And it’s interesting just going through this book and seeing some of the challenges that these women had to go through and how similar they are to, you know, even our lives.
A lot of the things that I’ve highlighted in here are references to, you know, things that we could learn. Like, there was a point in the story about Dot where she’s standing in, like, the office for the very first time with a bunch of women that also don’t know why they’re there, what they’re doing. And one of the women actually came back and said, “Well, I’m sticking with you because you seem like you know what it is you’re doing.”
Completely clueless and all alone but that impression that she was sure of herself and confident can be enough to get you beyond the door, you know?
A lot of times, even in, you know, consulting work the purpose is to, you know, act like you know what it is you’re doing. Not necessarily that you don’t, but that you can, you know? No matter what the deal is you’re going to be able to figure it out; and walking in with that confidence is more important to people than actually having the knowledge already there to be able to solve the problem.
That is good life advice.
Right? And then there’s other parts in here that are talking about, you know, the challenges that women went through and how I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, you know, women still say that today.” Or, you know, “Yeah, those are the same problems we have.” And, “Underpaid and under represented.” And, you know, “Man, this is man’s job but I sure seem to be getting away with it!”
So things that, you know, we women have been saying for, you know, years and years and decades and centuries at this point.
Yeah, and it’s, it’s partly comforting but also partly frustrating to feel camaraderie with women through time but also it’s like, oh have things not changed after all this? It’s kind of a bummer.
I also liked the original definitions of “nutjobs.”
What? What was that?
So the original definition of a nutjob is right here in this quote on page 75 that says, “As part of her duty she was given the task of testing what were known as nutjobs, machines marketed by investors offering so-called foolproof enciphering systems.” So she was the nutjob hacker.
That’s such a great word for it. I can kind of see how that definition evolved to today’s definition for it.
I mean it’s almost like con people that believe their own con.
I liked the discussion about strategies that they used to go and break those things, where it talks about the breaking of the alphabet where you have the 6s and the 20s being the vowels and consonants that exist within our alphabet and that vowels tend to be really, really common and so when you are met with something that’s encrypted oftentimes you can see a pattern emerge from it to say, “Oh well, because this occurs most frequently, very likely, it happens to be the letter ‘e’ if you’re working against an English language.”
And then being able to talk those things and put them against known words or phrases or sometimes guesses at what those words or phrases could be that were called cribs where you can say, “I know what this is, or I have pretty high confidence that’s what it is and so let’s see if my guess works.”
And that sort of approach is actually something that’s still used today when working with breaking encryption systems. Like, I don’t remember what the name of the attack is anymore because there were a handful of them kind of around the time of Heartbleed where they started naming attacks that broke modern encryption, but one is related to using compression before you encrypt something and by doing that you can actually, like, if an attacker can control the output of what you’re producing then they are able to go and put a letter, like, within there or some sort of character in there and if it compresses then it’s known that that thing already exists within compressed payload and so they’re working, kind of, from this semi-blind standpoint and are able to reverse engineer, like, what was actually in that payload through that without actually decrypting what was in there.
And it all definitely goes back to this same sort of approach where you have some knowledge of what’s in there or you try to figure out knowledge of what’s in there in order to decipher the remainder that you don’t know for sure.
Which is kind of something that Grotjan did, right? It was her job to-
Essentially reconstruct unknown machines without having ever seen them or having a piece of it, based on knowing what the output was and then trying to put it together in order to get what that output was. So, kind of, it was reverse engineering essentially at that point.
But yeah, it’s like they talked about two different sides of codes; that you have the code itself which is like offsetting a number or a letter or something like that and then there’s enciphering which is, like, the compression side of things, actually encrypting it. So then you had codes that were called “super encipherment” which used both offsetting and then encrypting to try to, like, double and triple up the types of information that you would need to have in order to break that code.
But it’s like, that’s pretty much, like, the great majority of, like, that’s what code is and then trying to figure out the seeds from there. I also liked that they compared essentially encryption or code groups with texting because we have like, “LOL” and “OMG” and, you know, “IMHO”. On Twitter we have “a11y” and whatnot. So…
It’s like they’re all codes that are common knowledge and things that we use nowadays.
So that both serves to shorten the message and I guess also to, kind of, obscure the message as well because you’re not using a common word you’re using something else instead.
It can be. It doesn’t necessarily have to be. It’s not the only reason for compression or encryption. But in order to make it a code then yes, it has to be something that someone can read at some point, but also something that is preventing others from being able to read it.
Oh, right, right, right. So they called it a code because you’re using a completely different word and then there’s the encryption.
“The eagle has landed.”
Yeah. I also like that once the enemy messages, or not even necessarily enemy, like, sometimes they’re getting messages from neutral parties like Sweden, but once that was intercepted then they re encrypted it with American encryption before they sent that one to the people who would break it.
Well, more layers are clearly going to make it harder to break, isn’t it?
Peeling back an onion trying to get to the real message and you never really know.
But that made me think, like, if the Americans are sending encrypted messages from the enemies then the enemies might also be intercepting those messages. And then if they broke it then they would find out it was just their own message.
Yes, but at the same time if they broke it then they’d at least know how the American are encrypting and that’s one more layer off.
Thanks for giving them their own code in our own language.
I also thought it was funny back in the World War I section on that guy’s ranch where they’re trying to decipher Shakespeare. What’s that guy called?
Fabyan [fah-be-en], Fabyan [fae-be-in].
I wanted to point out while he’s looking that up that it wasn’t actually Fabyan that was super interested in Bacon’s code it was actually a woman called Elizabeth Wells Gallup who was obsessed with it. He was funding her. He thought it was fascinating but it was actually her theory and her obsession.
So they kind of had fun with that bilateral cipher by taking a picture and like, lining up in front of the hotel and, like, turning their heads certain ways and trying to spell out “Knowledge is power” but then they didn’t have enough people so it was “knowledge is powe-” without the “r”.
And then there’s also a typo because someone looked the wrong way.
And it reminds me of the cover of the Beatles album, “Help”? I believe there’s all sorts of things with that. I think they were trying to spell out “help me” but obviously there’s only four people. And I think another thing is they ran the negative backwards so it’s actually a mirror image. Now I don’t know if that was on purpose or an accident, but…
So I think it’s actually LPME backwards.
I did not know that.
You know what’s interesting? Going back to random things while I’m flipping through this and reading stories and things that I was excited about, going through these I reached a point where I realized that maybe it really is true that our generation has gotten dumber.
At a point where, like, Elizabeth Friedman had her first kid and thought she was going to be able to stay home and write a children’s book on like, the history of the alphabet. And I don’t know about you but maybe as a kid I would have loved, like, a story on the history of the alphabet but that’s because I was a freaking nerd! No one cares about that nowadays.
I was curious to know how, like, what the target audience for that children’s book was. But also think it’s interesting. I think there’s definitely cultural and temporal norms around how young people are when they learn certain things. This is, again, a complete tangent but when I went to visit my home town in Sudan I went to a high school class there and it was a high school math class, it was about sophomore-age students and they were there learning multivariable calculus, this was just, like, a regular high school class, and I always think it’s fascinating whatever you, like, read about curriculum across different countries how quickly people learn certain topics and how education is structured across regions and... yeah. Total tangent! Not relevant to this at all. But-
Just to say that I think there’s, like, the time dimension but then there’s also, like, cultural norms about learning and the pace of learning.
So you’re just proving my point that Americans have gotten dumber.
Yeah, so quick correction on the Beatles album, they were going to spell out “help” but then it didn’t look good so they just made it look good. And so it’s actually, like, “NUJV”.
I had to look it up ‘cause I’ve never seen the cover and I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand the first two letters.
Okay, so they’re holding their arms in the positions of, like, the semaphore flag signaling system.
I’ve not heard of that.
It’s like, you know how we had morse code for sending messages?
They have flag signals which is essentially morse code, while you have flags that you hold in certain positions that mean a letter.
So it’s something that you oftentimes seen in the Navy where you have flagmen that are signaling across to different ships that are just close enough to see each other with binoculars. You could send messages that way by using flag arm position signals.
I see. And then this album cover? They’re using the proper flag positions? Or no?
They were trying to.
No. They were gonna spell “help” but apparently it didn’t look very good.
Oh. ‘cause I’m looking at it right now. I’ll have to look up these flag positions, I’ve not heard of that before.
Yeah. I’ll drop in a link.
Holding your arms in crazy positions is not exactly very good for an album cover, apparently, in the 60s.
All right. Well, we’re getting close to the end. Anything else y’all want to wrap up with?
I thought the examples of the way that the messages were written, that they managed to break after Grotjan helped crack the purple machine, was that the example of Japan sending a message from Japan to the embassy in Madrid saying that England and American are jingling money in their pockets in reference to them trying to sway Spain onto their side and talking about having to try and get Spain on the side of the Axis instead. And to say, like, “jingling money in their pockets” so, like, not necessarily speaking, like, totally with tact, but it’s very, like, casual sounding, all of the examples.
Hmm. So were you saying that’s how they cracked it? Was because of that message?
It’s not so much that that’s how they cracked it but rather I thought it was interesting to see some of the examples of it. Because, I mean-
You hear about the process of all of these women working so hard on it and then to finally see some of the things that they were able to pull out of it-
So, some of the messages were military, right? And, I’m assuming maybe those were more formal but some of them they were just listening to messages from, like, CEOs of companies and just like, really rich people and people who have, like, connections with the people in politics. So I wonder if this was one of those?
You know what was also interesting was the fact that when women were listening in on just, like, live messages being sent using, like, morse code and things like that-
I don’t think this is in the book but they got used to and were able to recognize based on, just, like you’d recognize someone’s footsteps? Like, when a particular operator was the one typing out a message that was being sent.
So, you know, you get so used to it and you listen to so many of them you start hearing the natural distinctions between them, you start hearing the patterns so they could literally tell who was at the operating machine that day.
We all have our tells, we all have our fingerprints. You can tell the same thing with who coded which pieces just by looking at how the code is structured.
Like, all of us have our own things, just like when we’re writing. All of us use certain words uniquely throughout our code and all of words so that it very definitely fingerprints us. Yay big data.
I was actually watching a documentary on the history of cryptography like two days ago and they said that at some point they decided to share the information, like the British had decided to share the information with the Americans to try to draw the Americans into the war that Britain had broken Enigma. And that was huge! Huge, huge! That two countries had never actually shared secrets like that; sat down and, like, shared their deepest, darkest secrets.
So that moment was the origin of, like, the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain.
However, the point is that after a while Americans started working alongside those that were in Bletchley and they were blown away by the fact that in America essentially they’d have just, like, empty rooms full of shiny file cabinets that also were empty, almost for looks; whereas you basically had British women sitting at small desks with mason jars of sticks of piece of paper sticking out of them and that’s what they were using to break codes. So it was very eye-opening to the Americans to see how the Brits had so little and required so little in order to break these codes.
Whereas they had put a lot on for show.
Reminds me of something this book mentioned about the Americans is that some women, at their desk, had kind of like a clothesline across with, like, strips of paper hanging down from it?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Essentially putting together shredded paper and things.
And also writing down ciphers.
But yeah, they’d take, like, shredded bits of paper and they would re-... you know, put them back together. They would tape them all back together in order to see the-
Yeah, I didn’t think about that ‘cause they probably didn't have the types of shredders that we have nowadays that crosscut.
Right. So it’s still like the straight lines, right?
I liked another quote, there’s actually a whole bunch of hearts on the side of my paper here, that said, “It took Dot several days to learn her way around. At first much of the complex looked alike but she soon came to see that there were distinctions between what was going on in many of the spaces. The operations also included rooms where women worked at machines: tabulating machines, punch card machines, strange sorts of typewriters. There were small machines, huge machines, noisy machines, machines hooked up to other machines through thick nests of cables. Dot didn’t know this but she found her way into the largest clandestine message center in the world. “
And I just-
Loved that! Like, when was the last time you walked into, like, a high-tech room full of all sorts of different machines and computers and it was all women?
And for me the answer’s never.
Same. (laughs) Unfortunately.
And how beautiful would that be? You know, to walk into this room full of women that were all just as smart, like, and not just that, but you were just as smart as them.
And working together to, you know, essentially hack this, the greatest minds in the world.
Yeah. All right, I think that’s a good place to end it.
About as good as any!
Thanks so much for talking about this. It’s good to hear everyone’s perspective on this instead of just reading it on my own.
Yeah. I am really excited to dive into the second part of the book.
Yeah so next time, part two! I’ll see you all next time.
See you, everyone! Bye!
(Exit music: Electro swing)