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Posted by Elizabeth Goldsmith

By Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Regular Contributor)

images-3When the explorer Samuel de Champlain built a fortified settlement on the south shore of the Bay of Fundy in 1606, he and the group of men who accompanied him were determined to survive the winter in good health. Many of their number – more than thirty – had died of scurvy in the previous year. Europeans at the time didn’t know precisely what foods could prevent scurvy, but they did believe that better nutrition would be key to healthy survival in their new settlement of Port-Royal. Medical treatises also advised that scurvy could be combatted by avoiding the boredom and depression that so often accompanied winter in northern climes. So along with some regular feasting they needed to plan good entertainment.

L’Ordre du Bon Temps

The_Order_of_Good_CheerThey dubbed their new organization ‘The Order of Good Cheer’. This social club pledged to provide festive meals at least every couple of weeks throughout the winter season. The primary beneficiaries were the noblemen and other prominent French settlers, with members of the Mi’kmaq Nation who had assisted in constructing the Port Royal stockade also attending and receiving leftovers. One of the Frenchmen in regular attendance was the writer and poet Marc Lescarbot. He provided theatrical pieces that were staged to music to entertain the guests. The dinners were hosted by Monsieur de Poutrincourt, the appointed leader of the settlement, and the food was provided by all members of the club, who took turns bringing in meat from the hunt and vegetables that had been preserved from summer gardens.

The Essential Ingredient

At the end of the winter, only seven settlers had succumbed to scurvy, and these were poor folk who had not been present at many of the feasts. Champlain and Poutrincourt congratulated themselves on the success of ‘The Order of Good Cheer’. But modern historians have been mystified, because the key ingredient for preventing scurvy – vitamin C – was not present in the generous portions of meats and vegetables that the settlers managed to keep on the table that winter.


Recently, a closer look at the menus as described in Port-Royal reports and letters sent back to France has yielded a clue. The settlers describe eating a new food that they call “small red apples.” These were no doubt cranberries, rich in vitamin C. This was an item on the menu that had probably been introduced to the settlers by their Mi’kmaq neigbors. They are still called “pommes de prés,” or meadow apples, today in Acadia.


For Further Reading:

Samuel de Champlain, Voyages (1613)

Raymonde Litalien and Denis Vaugeois, eds., Champlain: The Birth of French America (2005)

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Posted by Fred Clark

Hal Lindsey turns 85 years old today, something that Lindsey himself has spent decades telling us should never come to pass.

Lindsey’s 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth — a blockbuster best-seller — told us that the End of the World was nigh. And not just maybe a bit nigh-ish, mind you, but really, really nigh.

Lindsey made a fortune interpreting the signs of the times and explaining what it all means according to his premillennial dispensationalist “Bible prophecy.” And the signs were clear and undeniable, Lindsey said back in 1970. The Rapture was imminent. The End was near and could come at any moment.

LindseyCountdownNo one who read and believed The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970 would have expected that the world could possibly still be around on Hal Lindsey’s 85th birthday. The “countdown to Armageddon” had started, Lindsey told us — and that countdown wasn’t supposed to last for another 44 years.

Lindsey’s big selling point — the angle that made his variation of the usual “Bible prophecy” scheme stand out — had to do with the idea that the Rapture would have to come within one “generation” of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. A biblical generation, Lindsey assured us, was about 40 years — maybe a very little bit longer than that, but surely not 66 years, which is how long it’s been by today, the 85th birthday that prophecy had prophesied Hal Lindsey could not possibly still be around to see.

I worry about Hal Lindsey’s financial security now that he’s midway through his 80s. Sure, he made a fortune back in the 1970s and 1980s — Late Great sold more than 29 million copies. But surely Lindsey couldn’t have invested all that money in long-term savings. After all, he spent his whole career insisting that there couldn’t possibly be such a thing as a long term remaining for this late, great planet and its inhabitants. If the 1980s were the “countdown to Armageddon,” then surely Lindsey’s financial planning wouldn’t have extended decades beyond the 1990s. That would’ve been absurd! It would have contradicted everything he’d ever written.

Fortunately, Hal Lindsey can still rely on Social Security — that program remains fully funded, despite another lucrative strain of apocalyptic literature that’s been insisting for decades that it, too, was on the verge of imminent collapse. (Strangely, some of the same people who have spent decades telling us that Social Security was going to go bankrupt 30 years from now are also the people who have spent decades telling us that the Rapture is imminent and the world would end well before then.)

Lindsey’s admirers will likely celebrate his 85th birthday today without pausing to realize that this celebration disproves everything Lindsey ever taught them. The same thing happened in 2009, when admirers of the Scofield Reference Bible marked the 100th anniversary of that volume. And it will happen again next year, when Left Behind fans celebrate with a 20th anniversary edition of that novel.

Hal Lindsey turns 85 today. He told us that could never happen, but it just did.

To The Red Headed Kid In Front of Me

Nov. 23rd, 2014 07:36 am
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Posted by Dave Hingsburger

Dear Kid In Front of Me in the Lineup,

Before I start, let me just assure you that I think you are an amazing kid. I know you aren't used to getting letters from strangers but this is the only way I can think of to express my admiration of the person you already are and the person you are still yet to be.

When I pulled into the lunchtime line up and saw that I was fifth or sixth in line behind a bunch of young teens, yes including you, I immediately tensed up. You see these are really unsafe situations for me. I'm fat, I'm in a wheelchair, I'm a pretty big target for really small hearts. But I noticed something right away. I saw that they were switching their gaze, and their open hostility to me, from you. Of course I saw your bright red hair. You already knows that in a world browns and yellows, bright orange red hair, makes you really, really, really easy to see. Like me, I hope you don't mind the comparison and somehow I don't think you will, I'm guessing that there are times you just wish for a moment or two of anonymity.

So, they switched their gaze and their comments from you to me. Do you know kid, that I was in this situation once, when I was your age, and I didn't handle it like you did. For me, I was so weary, and this is neither excuse or reason what I did was wrong, of being treated differently that when I had the opportunity, when another walked into firing range, I joined in. I became what I hated. It was only for maybe two or three minutes and I want you to know I am more wounded, in real ways, by what I did in those two minutes than I was from all the years of being the 'one'. The one that was easy to laugh at, to mock and to purposely hurt - I don't like the work bullying because it doesn't express what I experienced, I experienced violence, social violence. That means of course, that what I did in those couple of minutes was violent, purposeful violence. I won't minimize it by calling it bullying.

You, like me, saw them switch from you to me. I saw in your eyes, when you looked at me, a deep understanding. You stood there thinking, only for a second, and then you did one of the bravest, smartest, most compassionate things I think I've ever seen. You squared your shoulders and you pushed through the crowd of boys, the ones who had targeted you, before me. They parted, just parted, in the face of your determination. You picked up a tray, the kind you put food on, and brought it back. You stood for a couple of minutes, knowing they were watching you, then you turned and you said to me, "Would you like this?"

An act of kindness, in the midst of meanness and, yes social violence, you did something kind. You exploded the atmosphere with what you did. I thanked you loudly, Ruby, standing beside me, thanked you too. In those seconds it was just you and us. The rest were irrelevant. They were made bystanders to a moment of connection. And connection trumps disconnection in the way love trumps hate, every single time.

After our thank yous you turned back into place. And those that had been shamed, not by what you did but by knowing they did not do what you did, stood silently, not even looking at each other, as they waited their turn.

So, red headed kid in the line in front of me, thanks.

I wish there was a bigger word than thanks, but for now that's all I got.

And I give it to you with the deepest respect for who you are and who you will one day be.


Sunday favorites

Nov. 23rd, 2014 11:43 am
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Posted by Fred Clark

Proverbs 22:22-23

Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
   or crush the afflicted at the gate; 
for the Lord pleads their cause
   and despoils of life those who despoil them.

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Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

A new paper by Martha Stinson and Christopher Wignall found that 9.6% of working-age men were working for their dad in 2010. The likelihood of nepotistic opportunism was related to class, generally climbing with the father’s income.


This is just a “snapshot,” writes Matt O’Brien for The Washington Post. It’s just one year. If we consider whether men have ever worked for their dads, the numbers get much higher. More than a quarter of men spend at least some time working for the same company as their fathers before their 30th birthday. O’Brien also cites a study by economist Miles Corak revealing that 70% of sons of the 1% in Canada have worked at the same place as their dad.

As O’Brien says: “The easiest way to get your foot in the door is for your dad to hold it open for you.”

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at http://thesocietypages.org/socimages)

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Posted by Dave Hingsburger

I just completed an interview, as part of research into the effect that working with people who have been traumatized has on you in the role of helper, and am a little traumatized from the experience itself. To be fair, the interview was only done after a warning that the subjects discussed might cause distress, and I gave fully informed consent.

As the questions rolled by about how I, in my role, deal with various aspects of trauma as experienced by those I serve, I began thinking about a young man I met in an abuse prevention class about a year ago. Even though it's a long time since, I remember him, everything about him, and everything about the encounter.

We were well into the class when he stated that there was all different kinds of abuse. He asserted that he'd never been hit, that he'd never be touched when he didn't want to be touched. But, he said, when his mom told him that she wished she had aborted him, or, now that it was OK to do, killed him when he was younger, that was abuse too. The whole class stopped. He began crying.

This moment was so at odds with who I saw when he came into the training. He looked like a typical twenty year old, wore cool clothes, seemed comfortable in his own skin and flirted outrageously with the girls, who responded with jokes and affection. He was liked. By his peers. He was liked. At a glance, the picture of a young and happy man.

Afterwards, when we talked together, I discovered that he was a young and happy man, who's soul had been battered and bruised. He knows he's not wanted. He knows that his family wishes him dead. He knows these things. "Sometimes, when I'm having fun with my friends, when we're laughing and all, it comes. I go kind of numb and it feels like I'm alone in the dark."

"Why is it OK for parents to kill their kids with disabilities now?" he asked.

"It isn't," I said, and he looked at me as if I just didn't understand the world I lived in. I insisted several times in several ways that "It isn't OK."

We made several agreements. I was allowed to tell his support team that he'd like to have some counselling around suicide and depression. I was allowed to write about this, cause he wanted people to know what it felt like to know, absolutely know, that in another time and another place he would not have been allowed to exist. That his mother would have killed him, that society would have approved.

As I answered the questions in the interview, all I could think about was him. And about how hard it was for me to get on a plane and leave. And about how hard it was to have stood so close to his pain that I could feel it echo in my heart. And about how, sometimes, it all just seems so difficult. I see, increasingly every day, the value of people with intellectual disabilities and yet I see, every day, reports of violence and murder targeted towards them.

And I know it's not OK.

Really, I know it's not OK.

But that doesn' help him.

And it doesn't help me either.

I finished the interview, I was honest about the fact that sometimes the pain of others is difficult to hear and difficult to forget and difficult to move on from. I think I surprised them by saying that having a disability made it harder. I was asked why. All I could think to say was ...

"Because, I know, they'd kill me too."

"Can you explain what you mean by that?"

"That's the problem, I can't."
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Posted by Fred Clark

How bad is the politicization of white evangelical religion? How thoroughly has every trace of the gospel been replaced by partisan political sloganeering? It’s this bad:

After speaking to a Sunday school class about immigration, a woman asked if she could talk to me. She pulled me aside and whispered, “I think there’s a girl in my daughter’s class this year who is, umm, not legal. What should I do?”

She explained that her daughter had befriended a new girl. When they talked, the student was evasive and said she wasn’t allowed to say where she lived for fear someone would take her mother away and send her back to Mexico. The woman asked me, “What should I do? Do I need to turn her in?”

I assured the woman that she had no reason to report the girl or her mother and suggested she encourage her daughter to invite the girl over instead. “But couldn’t we get into trouble if she’s not here legally?” the woman asked.

I often hear these kinds of concerns when I speak about immigration.

That’s Dale Hanson Bourke writing at Christianity Today. What she means there when she says “I often hear these kinds of concerns when I speak about immigration” is that she often hears these kinds of concerns when she speaks about immigration to white evangelicals.

Because they’ve completely lost the map.


Nice white Christian ladies welcome the stranger in Jesus’ name. (Dallas Morning News photo by Ron Baselice)

What does this show us? It shows us a people whose “concerns” — whose response to the actual stranger in their midst — is not primarily shaped by the gospel, by their “relationship with Jesus,” by “the authority of scripture,” the Bible, or any of the other stuff they’re always on about. Their response is not shaped by those things at all.

It is shaped by Fox News. And AM talk radio. And the National Religious Broadcasters. It’s shaped by the explicit right-wing partisanship of Charismanews and by the the implicit right-wing partisanship of Christianity Today.

It has been reduced to a shrinky-dink caricature of Christianity, one in which that phrase — “the stranger in your midst” — is not even recognized as a massive biblical motif, except perhaps maybe out of context, in reference to a fetus, because that is the primary and almost the only meaning that “Jesus” and “the Bible” have anymore, as a shorthand for criminalizing abortion.

Just consider how many utterly wrong turns one has to take to arrive at the position in which a little girl comes to your Sunday school class and your first thought is “Do I need to turn her in?” That’s sick.

Sure, it’s good to see Christianity Today pushing back, ever so slightly, against some of the ramifications of this sickness. Hanson Bourke offers a helpful explanation for CT’s readers to correct some of the more ludicrous lies they’ve apparently ingested wholesale from Fox and “Christian” radio. But here again, the goodness of what’s being said is overshadowed by the fact that it needed to be said at all.

Here’s the final point in Hanson Bourke’s article. Just consider what it means that a group of Christians needed to be told this:

5. It is not against the law to welcome a family into your home or help them, even if they are undocumented.

Including new children in the classroom in your family events is a wonderful way to help them feel accepted. Showing hospitality to a child or a family whose immigration status is questionable does not create legal problems for citizens.

New children in any classroom often feel lonely and need a friend. Children whose families are from a different country or culture can feel even more alone. As I assured the woman at church, reaching out to such a child is not only legal; it is a special act of kindness that will benefit not only that other child, but her child as well.

OK, so now these Christians know that there is no legal barrier to stop them from helping undocumented children. Against such there is no law.

But consider the deplorable modesty of the argument Hanson Bourke has to make for her evangelical audience. She’s not reassuring them that they won’t get in trouble for all the help they’ve been providing to immigrant families, because their Fox-addled Republicanism has barred them from providing any such help up until now.

Actually, helping these families is an idea introduced by Hanson Bourke. The “concern” she’s heard from evangelicals wasn’t about whether or not they would get in trouble for helping other people. Their concern was, again, “Do I need to turn her in?”

Jesus Christ. By which I mean, listen to Jesus Christ: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” Therefore you “are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Do I need to turn her in? Holy motherloving hell.

A century ago, American churches were busily expanding their “home mission societies” to minister to immigrants arriving in America. They cooked meals, helped provide housing and clothing. They taught English lessons and helped immigrants find work. That early-20th-century home mission work was also harmfully entangled in all sorts of colonial attitudes, problematic ideas about assimilation and Anglicization, etc. But even if their acts of mercy were, in part, due to imperfect motivations, those Christians were still responding to the arrival of new immigrants with acts of mercy because that’s what Christians do.

They knew this. They did not have to be argued into it or persuaded and cajoled into accepting the idea. White evangelicals today apparently do not know this. Such acts of mercy are not a part of their identity. Particularly not when it comes to the Others they hear demonized in their daily devotionals from Fox News and Christian hate radio.

Something has gone very, very wrong.


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Posted by Fred Clark

Questions From a Ewe, “Please don’t blame your sexism on Jesus”

I think the most offensive thing that you said, which I know you’re just parroting what other sexist clerics have said before you, is the bit about blaming your and the clergy’s sexism on Jesus.  I must insist you all stop doing that.  Please own your sexism and stop using Jesus as your scapegoat. Christ didn’t give us an all-male priesthood.  The men and their male hegemonic culture gave us an all-male priesthood. Truly, for heaven’s sake, own your discrimination; own your sexism.

Eliel Cruz, “How a conservative Christian can have a loving approach to homosexuality”

I understand why having full theological affirmation is important to many LGBT friends of mine. A theology that says intimacy between same-sex individuals is a sin is a theology that considers LGBT people as second-class children of God. Yet, there will never be a full theological consensus on same-sex sex for all of Christianity. We’re too diverse in our hermeneutics, backgrounds, and beliefs to ever all agree. But can someone have a traditional stance on their understanding of this topic and still be a loving and safe person towards the LGBT community?

Darnell Moore, “I’d Rather Go to Hell for Telling the Truth”

Years would pass before I was able to love myself more than my church members, former pastors, and even God supposedly loved me. It’s complicated because the churches I attended were spaces where my spirit was healed and killed. In fact, some of the worshipping spaces I attended were home to some of the most caring people who just happened to proclaim uncaring theologies. But I had to leave toxic worshipping spaces, and friendships, which had me believing lies. I had to separate myself from church leaders and parishioners who apparently “loved” me so much they felt the need to torment me with bad theology as opposed to allowing me space to live a full and loving life, with integrity, surrounded by affirmative people. The price of gaining entrance into their “heaven” would have been hefty, costing both my life and soul, had I stayed and believed their words.

Doktor Zoom, “Obama Said Words From the Bible, Is That Even Allowed?”

You might think that conservatives would be delighted that Obama, what with his devotion to atheist Muslim liberation theology, had finally invoked the Bible for the very first time in his public career, but instead, they were astonished that his lips did not catch fire from quoting the Worship Words, which are for Yang Chieftans only (and don’t even get us started on the people in comments sections attributing “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” to the Bible — you know, from Paul’s Letter to the Merchants Of Venice). …

So, to sum up, children: Barack Obama never mentions Jesus or the Creator or quotes the Bible, and that is terrible. Except for when he does quote the Bible, which he obviously doesn’t understand and despises. And now all these nice people will go to church and pray for Jesus to rescue America from all these goddamn brown people.

Maria Joanna Krol-Sinclair, “To the Guy I Punched in the Face in Prague”

Now, look, I don’t usually go around assaulting strangers, but apparently you do, as evidenced by the very apparent (to me as well as to random people milling around) hand-so-far-up-my-dress-that-it-was-literally-painful as you passed me on the street. Ok, nope, take that back: I don’t want to assume anything about you, dude-who-stuck-his-hand-up-my-dress: after all, this was the first time I assaulted anyone, maybe it was your first time too?

… I felt a beet-sized knot rising in my throat and knew that I had two options: I could swallow it, like I, and every other woman has done a thousand times. I could swallow it, and add it to the list of times I was made to feel physically unsafe in the street.


Nov. 21st, 2014 09:22 pm
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Posted by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

Let’s say, that you were very much a knitter, and less so a sewer – and let’s say that you decided to do a very simple sewing project.  Let’s say – even, because it’s true, that you only decided to do that sewing project because when it was done it would be a vehicle for knitting, and that made it seem all right to you.

Let’s say also, that you have a brand-spankin’ new sewing machine that you said you wanted, and even though it turns out that your husband really got that sewing machine so that he could learn to sew and make things for the boat, you really feel like you should use it. (Let’s say that things are also more or less square between you and said husband, because you delayed telling him that you can buy bias tape until he’d made a few million metres of it.)  Let’s say also that you may, or may not have had the best plan (read – no plan) for this project, except that you’ve been thinking about it for a while, and really, 90% of your plans work out, in one way or another. (Eventually.)  Let’s say that had finished embroidering all your numbers on the thing, and let’s say that you ran out of red embroidery floss as you finished the 4 in 24, and that’s a pretty good place to run out if you’re making an advent calendar, which you are.

numbersdone 2014-11-21

Let’s also say that after you drew about nineteen really weird/wonky/crooked trees, you finally got one that’s just the right amount of whimsy, without being all Seussian, and let’s say that while you had a pretty hard time sewing it on, you remembered a thing or two about turning corners while you were doing that, and so you only swore like a sunburned sailor for about half of the time.  Let’s say too, that despite a few incidents with the reverse button – which let’s also say that you’ve discovered is in the least intuitive place that it could possibly be in, which (let’s just say) might have meant that the corners aren’t quite as tidy as they could have been, that you’ve managed to sew down the embroidered strips for the pockets, and got them turned into pockets, with a little more stitching, and really – that reverse thingie? You’re still mad about where it is. (Let’s say too that you’re not quite ready to release all your rage at the machine, because you know that it’s probably just 25 years of having a different machine with the reverse in a different spot that’s actually the problem.)

accessories 2014-11-21

Let’s say as well, that after consulting the internet, and your mum (who’s very, very handy with a sewing machine) that you figured out how to sew on 24 buttons with the machine so that it only took like… an hour instead of three, and let’s say that it could have been a lot faster too, if you could have figured out how to get the “feed dogs” down a little sooner, and if you didn’t have to look up how to get the *&^%$#@!!ing presser foot off, and if you had figured out that the tension was all wrong and was making those weird loops on the bottom before you’d done, like… ten buttons.

allon 2014-11-21

Let’s say too, that you decided that only a fool would change the thread in the machine for one button, and you sewed that one on by hand.  (Let’s say that’s the yellow button, and let’s say that you decided that the top one should be yellow, purely for reasons of ornament.)

yellowone 2014-11-21

Let’s say that all of that is true, and that you cut a piece of dowel to go through the top, and let’s say that it took you a while to find a handsaw and mitre box in the basement (because it was in an even less sensible place than the reverse button, and also there are spiders down there) and lets say that you sanded the wood, and got it through the casing at the top, and let’s say that right now it’s hanging in your living room where you can admire it.

snowman 2014-11-21

Wouldn’t you, let’s just say, be rather smug that it was all going so well, and completely willing to overlook that you only have 6 ornaments made, and it’s 9 days until deadline?

I’d say so.

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Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

Flashback Friday.

In a great book, The Averaged American, sociologist Sarah Igo uses case studies to tell the intellectual history of statistics, polling, and sampling. The premise is fascinating:  Today we’re bombarded with statistics about the U.S. population, but this is a new development.  Before the science developed, the concept was elusive and the knowledge was impossible. In other words, before statistics, there was no “average American.”

There are lots of fascinating insights in her book, but a post by Byron York brought one in particular to mind.  Here’s a screenshot of his opening lines (emphasis added by Jay Livingston):


The implication here is, of course, that Black Americans aren’t “real” Americans and that including them in opinion poll data is literally skewing the results.

Scientists designed the famous Middletown study with exactly this mentality.  Trying to determine who the average American was, scientists excluded Black Americans out of hand.  Of course, that was in the 1920s and ’30s.  How wild to see the same mentality in the 2000s.

Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at http://thesocietypages.org/socimages)

Choir Practice

Nov. 21st, 2014 08:27 am
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Posted by Dave Hingsburger

Last night Joe headed out, right after supper, to choir practise. When we lived in Quebec Joe was a member of the choir at St. Paul's United Church. It was a big part of his life and he enjoyed both the practises and the performances. When we moved to Toronto, with the travel that we do, and, I hate to admit, with the extra support that I need, he has been unable to join a choir as a regular member.

As it happens, Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, which has an amazing choir, on occasion needs extra voices and asks for volunteers to come forward. Joe did this last summer and is doing it again this year for the first Advent Sunday service. So, off to choir practise he went.

We're comfortable enough to make jokes about this kind of thing, just before he left, I said to him, "Are you comfortable with leaving a cripple at home with all the sharps and matches laying around?" Joe, which will not surprise anyone who knows him, fell against the door laughing. And then headed out, I could hear him giggling down the hallway.

I was so pleased that Joe was doing this. I know he loves it. For me, too, it was nice to be home and secure, disability and all, alone. We've arranged the apartment such that it is as accessible as it is possible for a non-accessible apartment to be. We know my needs and routines and everything was taken care of before Joe left.

I got time alone.

Joe got time with others.

I was in bed when he came home, but my light was on and I was reading. Joe came in to chat with me, telling me about the choir and the songs and the fact that they were attempting four part harmony. I don't know what that means but it sounds hard. It didn't matter what he said, it mattered that his voice was still full of the enjoyment of being in the choir and participating in something he loves.

Disability changed my life.

But disability changed Joe's life too.

Last night, as I thought about it, I realized - yes disability changed our lives, but as we progress as we learn how to be in the world our our new(ish) normal. It's changed our life less and less.
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Posted by Derek Bruff

By Derek Bruff (Guest Contributor)

When you teach mathematics, it’s not every semester that a major motion picture is released that’s squarely on-topic for your course. Then again, the math course I’m teaching this fall isn’t your typical math course.

At Vanderbilt University, where I teach mathematics, every first-year undergraduate in the College of Arts & Science is required to take a first-year writing seminar, and every department is required to offer one. The English and philosophy departments offer plenty, but mathematics? Writing seminars aren’t the kind of courses that come naturally to us.

A few years ago, I volunteered to try my hand at teaching a writing seminar. My day job is directing the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching, so I’ve talked to many instructors from a variety of disciplines about teaching different kinds of courses, and I was eager to teach something other than my usual statistics and linear algebra courses. What would it be like to teach a writing seminar?

The course I put together is called “Cryptography: The History and Mathematics of Codes and Ciphers.” This fall is my third time offering the course, and it’s now my favorite course to teach. It’s an unusual blend of pure mathematics, puzzle solving, history, current events, and, yes, writing. One of my favorite aspects of the course is that the students who take it are generally very interested in the topic. First-years have a lot of writing seminars to choose from, so those who select my cryptography course usually bring with them a high degree of interest in the subject. That’s not the case for my statistics course!

What does it mean to teach writing in a mathematics course? It took me a couple of iterations of the course to develop a good answer to that question, but I think I have one. Effective mathematics writing involves explaining the math you want your audience to learn in a way that makes sense to them, given their mathematical backgrounds. (In that respect, good writing has something in common with good teaching.)

To give my students the opportunity to practice this aspect of mathematics writing with an authentic audience, two years ago I partnered with Holly Tucker, a fellow faculty member at Vanderbilt and editor of the collaboratively authored history blog Wonders & Marvels. My students produced a series of essays on the history of cryptography, and Holly published a selection of these essays on Wonders & Marvels.

Before the students got to work, Holly visited my class and talked with them about the kind of posts that she published on her blog and about the audience who reads them. I believe that this gave my students a far more concrete sense of audience for their writing than they would have had with a more generic writing assignments and that this, in turn, helped them produce better writing. Also very helpful: Holly’s feedback to the students on their submissions, in her role as editor.


Alan Turing

That was two years ago. This fall, Holly and I partnered again, and the assignment has a special relevance. That major motion picture I mentioned? It’s The Imitation Game, a biopic on the British codebreaker, mathematician, and computer scientist Alan Turning, featuring none other than Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. Turing’s creative genius was instrumental in cracking the German Enigma cipher, which in turn was a critical part of the Allied victory in World War II. The Imitation Game opens in the US next week, on November 28th.

In my cryptography seminar, we spend a week on World War II military cryptography, with an emphasis on Turing and his fellow codebreakers at Britain’s Bletchley Park. I was thrilled to find out that The Imitation Game would be released while the course was running this fall. Holly and I decided to run my students’ posts on the history of cryptography this week, just before the US release of the film. The posts have been running all this past week, and you can read them all here.

To the Wonders & Marvels readers, I hope you’ve found my students’ essays interesting. The students have done some great work, and they’ve enjoyed writing for you. I also hope you’ll go see The Imitation Game. It’s receiving stellar reviews—and it’s already in theaters in the UK! My students will be on Thanksgiving break when it opens in the US, but we’re planning to go see it as a class on December 1st when we’re all back on campus. A class trip to the movies for a math course? I can’t wait!

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Posted by Matthew Gu

By Matthew Gu (Guest Contributor)

The nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War were no small matter. A single attack could, in theory, escalate all the way to a devastating nuclear war; millions, if not billions could die. Therefore, secrecy was of the utmost importance. There was a great need for secure channels of communication on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The Russian military needed encryption rivaling Enigma, the fiendishly difficult cipher machine used by the Germans in WWII. But Enigma had been broken by Allied cryptanalysts by the end of WWII. The more secure successor, the German Lorenz cipher machines, had been broken as well by the secret British Colossus computers. A new, stronger encryption was needed.

Enter Fialka. Used primarily through the 1960’s and 1970’s, the machine was used by the Russian military to communicate with other countries in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Not much is known about Fialka, as it was declassified quite recently in 2005. Translated as Russian for “purple,” Fialka operated on a very similar basis as the previous Enigma machines. Encryption was through an electromechanical process that sent a current through a set of rotors connected by electrical contacts with internal wirings to scramble each letter. The wirings essentially created a particular substitution cipher alphabet, the encrypted output, to correspond with a plaintext alphabet, or unencrypted input. (Singh, 1999)


Fialka, Dave Clausen, Wikipedia, Public Domain The rack of ten rotors can be seen, as well as the typing and print mechanisms

Traditional ciphers have a single “cipher letter” assigned to every plaintext letter, creating a different “output alphabet”, or cipher alphabet. Ciphers like the Enigma took it a step further. The Enigma was so difficult to crack because after each letter was entered, the first rotor would advance to the next rotation and give a completely new cipher alphabet. Further encryption could be created by changing the initial rotor positions and arrangements. However, Enigma only had three rotors, and the British bombe computers developed to find those initial rotor settings were soon capable of deciphering intercepted plaintext within a day. (Singh, 1999)

While Enigma had three rotors (four towards the end of the war), Fialka had ten. Furthermore, each rotor had 30 electrical contacts corresponding to 30 Russian characters. While the design of the machine meant it was more difficult to rearrange the rotors like the Enigma, the sheer number of possible rotor settings compensated for that shortcoming. The internal wires within each rotor were also removable, and could be repositioned in any of the thirty rotations within the external ring on a rotor as well as backwards, creating 60 possible arrangements. Further security is created by a complex drive mechanism that caused alternate rotors to be turned in opposite directions. (Hamer, Perera, 2005)

Aside from being much more secure than Enigma, Fialka was also easier to use. German Enigma machines frequently required two operators since the letters were output by way of a light board on top of the machine. While one operator typed in plain text or a received cipher message, the other would have to record the light board signals. This was slow enough that touch-typing was impossible.

Fialka, on the other hand, used a printer with a paper tape output to facilitate quick encryption and decryption of messages by a single operator. Additionally, the machine both printed and accepted paper punch cards. One advantage that Enigma did have over Fialka, though, was that it was almost half the weight of Fialka. Being made with a primarily metal body and components, Fialka was almost 50 pounds! Granted, the Cold War was not a traditional war with much fighting and battlefield maneuvering so there was not really a need for portability. (Hamer, Perera, 2005)

Cracking Fialka

Cryptanalysis of Fialka was difficult, but not impossible. The ten rotors with 30 character positions each and two ways to slot in the rotor (forwards and backwards) gave a massive number of starting configurations, over 604 quadrillion possibilities! Adding in the later upgrade of a rotor with changeable wirings gives another 403 heptillion, or 403 trillion trillion possibilities. Like in Enigma, the rotors themselves can be rearranged in another ten factorial, or 3.6 million ways. Finally, a day key can be inputted on a punch card that swaps certain letters, functioning like the Enigma’s plugboard. Multiplying, we see that even without the day key, the number of possible starting configurations number in at 8.7 followed by fifty zeroes (Reuvers, Simons, 2009).

Analyzing some operator habits and captured information such as daily key books could reduce this number significantly. For example, while rotating the rotors was simple, taking all ten out and rearranging them was quite a hassle as the design did not allow for individual rotor removal. And as always, with rotor machines the issue of key distribution from higher command to the operators was a constant issue.

Even more helpful was the introduction of more advanced programmable digital computers. Compared to the British bombes in WWII used to find rotor settings for Enigma, digital computers were not physically limited by machinery and could be programmed for multiple tasks. Also, electronic circuitry operated much faster with less possibility of breakdown than a strictly mechanical solution. Indeed, as the NSA developed more powerful computers, the US was able to decrypt Fialka traffic with relative ease by the 1970’s (Courtois, 2012).

The increasing complexity of electromechanical ciphers using rotor technology had its limitations. Israel captured a machine during the 6 Day War in 1967, and the NSA built a computer to decrypt Fialka traffic fairly easily (Courtois, 2012). The fact was, rotor ciphers became so frequently used that finding a method of cryptanalysis was hardly new territory. Rotor machines and electromechanical ciphers had already begun to reach the end of their usefulness when digital computing delivered the deathblow.

The Next Wave in Cryptography

New encryption methods were needed, both for renewed security as well as to keep up with the Digital Age. Claude Shannon, an American mathematician, wrote an essay on “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (Shannon, 1948). This was a major spark that set off the development of mathematical cryptography using functions and algorithms instead of cipher alphabets. This led to encryption standards such as the Data Encryption Standard and RSA encryption that much of our online communication today is based on.

Fialka was undoubtedly an impressive piece of technology. It was perhaps one of the most advanced rotor machines ever built. However, it suffered from poor timing. Rotor machines had been around for a while. They were initially secure, but the more time passed, the more familiar cryptanalysts became with decryption techniques. Computers merely hastened that end. Fialka was the capstone of the era of electromechanical ciphers, but it was also a harbinger of times to come. When the world experienced the digital revolution, cryptography was carried along for the ride, and Fialka was left behind.

This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Courtois, N. (2012, December 28). Cryptanalysis of GOST. 29th Chaos Communications Congress. Lecture conducted from CCH Congress Center, Hamburg, Germany.

Hamer, D. & Perera, T., (2005, January 1). Russian Fialka Cold War era Cipher Machines. Retrieved October 13, 2014, from http://w1tp.com/enigma/mfialka.htm

Reuvers, P., & Simons, M. (2009, October 24). Fialka. Retrieved October 28, 2014.

Shannon, C. (1948). A Mathematical Theory of Communication. ACM SIGMOBILE Mobile Computing and Communications Review, 3-3.

Singh, S. (1999). The code book: The evolution of secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots, to quantum cryptography. New York: Doubleday.

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Posted by Fred Clark

Eleven years ago, when I first started reading these books, I was surprised to see that the Rapture — the central premise of the book — took place offstage, without either Buck or Rayford noticing until Hattie brought it to their attention.


Left Behind, pp. 15-19

So, anyway, back to Rayford Steele. You remember Rayford. He’s the kinky, control-freak, middle-aged pilot so obsessed with his lust for a young, subservient flight attendant that he seems not to have noticed a nuclear war.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins strayed from Rayford for a few pages there in order to introduce us to Buck Williams, and to provide a little more background. Through Buck’s eyes, we learn that this story takes place in the proverbial “not-so-distant future,” in a world very much like our own. Only a few, minor details have been fictionalized for the sake of the novel. I’ve noticed four so far in the book:

1. In Left Behind, our Newsweek magazine is replaced with its fictional counterpart, Global Weekly.

2. Rayford and Hattie work for a fictionalized American-based airline, called “Pan-Continental.”

3. While in our world the Concorde has ceased making commercial flights, it’s still flying in the pages of Left Behind.

4. There’s a miracle formula that turns desert sand into fertile soil; the world’s economy has been transformed so that agriculture is more lucrative than high-tech industry; Israel has made peace and lasting friendship with the Palestinians and all her Arab neighbors, who have happily ceded their territory and sovereignty; Russia has formed an alliance with Ethiopia — now a feared nuclear power — and launched tens of thousands of warheads at otherwise tranquil, peaceful Israel, but all of the missiles are destroyed harmlessly in a blatant act of divine intervention, providing such overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence of God’s existence that everyone is forced to ignore it.

But, you know, except for little details like that, this world is exactly like our own. It’s uncanny.

So again, back to Rayford:

Not sure whether he’d follow through with anything overt, Captain Rayford Steele felt an irresistible urge to see Hattie Durham right then. He unstrapped himself and squeezed … [oh, good God no!] … his first officer’s shoulder on the way out of the cockpit. [whew!] “We’re still on auto, Christopher,” he said as the younger man roused and straightened his headphones. “I’m gonna make the sunup stroll.”

Christopher squinted and licked his lips. “Doesn’t look like sunup to me, Cap.”

“Probably another hour or two. I’ll see if anybody’s stirring anyway.”

“Roger. If they are, tell ‘em Chris says, ‘Hey.’”

Rayford snorted and nodded. As he opened the cockpit door …

On the other side of that door, Rayford runs into Hattie Durham. She’s still “drop dead gorgeous,” but in a hysterically crying, stark-raving panic kind of way. It seems that the most significant and interesting event of the entire story has already occurred and we, the readers, were left behind. Or at least left out. (L&J rarely miss an opportunity to replace action with exposition.) But at least we get to hear about it second hand from Hattie:

… Her knees buckled as she tried to speak, and her voice came in a whiny squeal.

“People are missing,” she managed in a whisper, burying her head in his chest.

e4xbyHe took her shoulders and tried to push her back, but she fought to stay close. “What do you m– ?”

“She was sobbing now, her body out of control. “A whole bunch of people, just gone!”

“Hattie, this is a big plane. They’ve wandered to the lavs or –”

She pulled his head down so she could speak directly into his ear. Despite her weeping, she was plainly fighting to make herself understood. “I’ve been everywhere. I’m telling you, dozens of people are missing.”

“Hattie, it’s still dark. We’ll find –”

“I’m not crazy! See for yourself! All over the plane, people have disappeared.”

“It’s a joke. They’re hiding, trying to –”

“Ray! Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind. These people are gone!”

Here I would like you to do something that L&J do not. I’d like you to try to imagine that you’re actually on that airplane.

Imagine you’re the pilot and you step out of the cockpit and the first thing you see is a hysterical flight attendant who tells you, between sobs, that dozens of people on the jumbo jet have mysteriously vanished without a trace.

It might occur to you that your flight attendant is having a breakdown. In the book, Rayford believes Hattie because she seems sincere and genuinely frightened. He interprets this as evidence that she’s not going crazy. Of course, if she were, how would she act? That’s right — sincerely and genuinely frightened.

(Steele also seems to take Hattie’s word for what has happened because she keeps interrupting him and shouting. He is apparently a fan of Bill O’Reilly, and has come to believe that if someone shouts a lot and doesn’t let you finish a sentence, then they must be telling you the truth.)

It might occur to you to investigate Hattie’s claim. Certainly you might want to look around a little more thoroughly than this:

Rayford scanned the rest of first class. Most passengers were still asleep … But indeed several seats were empty.

That’s it. He finds Hattie hysterical. She tells him people are missing. He glances around the unlit, first-class cabin, sees some empty seats and decides she’s right! Yes, he then decides to walk through the plane, but only after — based on this initial cursory glance — he has accepted Hattie’s raging panic as fully justified and that dozens of people have, indeed, vanished without a trace. In Steele’s mind, there can be no other explanation for several empty seats in first class.

Think about that phrase “without a trace.” These people didn’t actually vanish without a trace — they left their clothes, their luggage, their seatmates and traveling companions. Perhaps someone might like to examine these more closely? Maybe try to figure out what all the missing have in common? Carefully preserve their abandoned clothing so as not to destroy potential evidence?

Nah. Let’s just panic:

Rayford wanted to be strong, to have answers, to be an example to his crew, to Hattie. But when he reached the lower level he knew the rest of the flight would be chaotic. He was as scared as anyone on board. As he scanned the seats, he nearly panicked. He backed into a secluded spot behind the bulkhead and slapped himself hard on the cheek.

That’s at the bottom of a page that begins with this sentence: “He bit his lip hard and winced at the pain.”

Rayford Steele is a very odd man.

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Posted by Fred Clark

Glenn Beck is deeply worried about the Black Problem. So is Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.).

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the rape accusations against Bill Cosby. Coates discusses his own failure to engage those accusations seriously when he wrote his 2008 essay on “The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism,” a piece that explores the problem of Bill Cosby accepting the construct of the Black Problem.

BerryHiddenWound• Shane Claibourne provides an earnest, inspiring description of a lovely tradition at our alma mater. (I’m old enough to recall the genesis of this tradition– a not-always-pleasant process that needn’t be revisited so long after it produced a pleasing outcome. But let me say this much: sometimes snark works.)

If you’re a student, or a professor, an administrator or an alumnus, you should probably examine your school’s housekeeping curriculum. And don’t think for a moment that it’s not a curriculum — or that what this arrangement teaches is any less important than anything else being taught in any classroom. The hidden curriculum of who cleans up after whom and how much we value them is an inescapable lesson absorbed by everyone involved in the institution. (And by “value” I mean wages, monetary compensation, benefits, etc. Hugs and recognition and “Housekeepers Appreciation Day” are all nice too, but they mean nothing if they can’t be heard over the roaring of the lesson being screamed by actual, tangible paychecks.)

See also: adjunct professors.

• Don Jolly offers a gloriously strange piece involving Dungeons & Dragons, Mazes and Monsters and Dark Dungeons. Jolly’s essay is structured as a conversation with a (probably) fictional ghost, but the real ghosts of what he discusses are still haunting us.

• The in-store music at the Big Box continues to surprise, as the Simple Minds channel seems to be evolving. Last night included two pre-Document R.E.M. songs, and two Joe Jackson songs, neither of which was “Stepping Out” or “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

These are welcome developments, but it all becomes irrelevant next week when the dreaded discount-bin Christmas music begins.

• Speaking of Christmas music … apparently somebody at the Vatican said, “Hey, Pope Francis, what do you want to hear at the Christmas concert?”

And Pope Francis said, “I want to hear this:

Click here to view the embedded video.

The pope has much better taste in American music than he seems to have in American Protestant theologians.

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Posted by Fred Clark

Flatulence joke is world’s oldest,” the BBC reports:

Academics have compiled a list of the most ancient gags and the oldest, harking back to 1900BC, is a Sumerian proverb from what is now southern Iraq.

“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap,” goes the joke.

Nearly 4,000 years later and that’s still pretty funny, confirming what we already knew: fart jokes never get old.

The structure of this joke is familiar to anyone who’s read the book of Proverbs in the Bible. That little preface — “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial …” — echoes a similar structure used in many biblical proverbs. “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him …” Proverbs 6:16 says. “Two things I ask of you, do not deny them to me …” (Prov. 30:7); “Three things are too wonderful for me, four I do not understand …” (Prov. 30:18).

Those passages in Proverbs follow the same time-honored structure: set-up, punchline. The set-up announces that we should pay attention because there’s a proverb coming, and the punchline puts a little twist on it to drive the point home. And like that earlier Sumerian example, some of the proverbs in Proverbs are also jokes:

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a woman.

Women — watcha gonna do? Amirite fellas? That is, literally, one of the oldest jokes in the book. Thousands of years later it’s still kind of a lazy joke, but that part of Agur’s routine still gets worked and re-worked in comedy clubs the world over. “The way of a man with a woman,” like flatulence, is apparently an endless source of comic material.

There's probably also a joke in here somewhere, which would push the oldest joke back another 20,000 years.

There’s probably also a joke in here somewhere, which would push the oldest joke back another 20,000 years.

“Agur” himself is a bit of a mystery. The 30th chapter of Proverbs is usually titled “The Sayings of Agur,” but we don’t know who he was, or if he wrote these sayings or collected them. In any case, we owe him. Think of all the times you’ve heard a comedian say, “Here’s another thing I don’t understand …” That’s Agur’s bit. An oldie, but a goodie.

I love the book of Proverbs even though it’s a bit of a mess. The editors who put it together didn’t seem to think repetition was a problem, so big chunks of it get repeated throughout. And, like any joke book or almanac or collection of quotations, the whole thing can be a bit hit or miss.

Sometimes Proverbs is wonderful, sometimes it’s frustrating. In some places it’s fiercely insightful, funny, wise and profound. In other places it reads like it was written by a slightly less clever version of Job’s foolish friends — preaching their same disproved theory of rewards for the righteous and suffering for the wicked (and, thus, blame for the victims).

That’s why it’s important to read Proverbs in context and in contrast with the books that accompany it in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures. Read Job, the Psalms and Ecclesiastes and you’ll have a proper perspective for reading those platitudes in Proverbs.

“The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous,” Proverbs 3:33 says.

“Funny you should say that,” says the Psalmist. “I just came from the house of the wicked, and they’re doing pretty well. They’re expanding the place, actually, since they just took over the abode of the righteous and sent those poor saps packing.”

“Trust me,” Job adds, “the world does not work that way.”

“Righteous, wicked, what’s the difference?” Qoheleth chimes in. “They’re both gonna die soon enough, their houses and abodes will crumble into dust, and they will both be equally forgotten.”

You have to read Proverbs with those other books in mind. It’s part of a set and without the commentary and correction provided by those adjoining books, it can be misleading. Read Proverbs in isolation from them and you can wind up with exactly the sort of hollow Bildadism that the book of Job mocks, the Psalms mourn, and Ecclesiastes demolishes.

In the private Christian school I attended growing up, we read through Proverbs in our class devotions for two straight years. The book of Proverbs has 31 chapters, so every day we’d read the chapter in class that corresponded to that day’s date. This is a popular practice in evangelical churches, and I’ve often wondered how very different those churches might be if, instead, it were the book of Ecclesiastes that had been divided into 31 calendar-friendly chapters.

I may have lost some of my evangelical Christian readers a few paragraphs ago when I described Proverbs as “hit or miss” (if any of those readers managed to get past the phrase “fart joke” in the title). The suggestion that anything in the Bible could be a “miss” will strike them as amiss. All together now, let’s recite the requisite incantation of 2 Timothy 3:16:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

(Oops, my mistake there. I went on to quote verse 17 as well and we’re never supposed to do that. That undermines the whole point of excerpting verse 16 as a contextless exhortation defending the excerpting of any other verse from the Bible as a contextless exhortation.)

Anyway, I’m not saying that all of Proverbs is notprofitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in [justice].” Jesus certainly seemed to think it was, since he borrowed big pieces of it in his Sermon on the Mount. I’m not telling you that I think parts of Proverbs are mistaken and misleading — or that in my opinion, some of the proverbs in Proverbs confuse the way we want the world to work with the way the world actually is.

This criticism of the shallower platitudes in Proverbs isn’t coming from me — it’s coming from the biblical texts that were wisely placed alongside Proverbs in the wisdom literature. The Psalms offer a critique of those shallow platitudes. Job offers a rebuttal of those platitudes. Ecclesiastes calls those platitudes “vanity.”

And if we’re going to invoke 2 Timothy 3:16 in defense of every word of Proverbs, then we also must do the same in defense of every word of Job, Psalms and Ecclesiastes. In these books of wisdom literature, the Bible is having an argument with itself. Job and parts of Proverbs disagree about how the world works — and if you’ve read both, and also spent any time living in the waking world, then you’ll recognize that Job makes a stronger case.

The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.” That’s wonderful as inspiration and aspiration, but it’s just plain wrong as description.

“The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand.” Would that it were so.


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Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

In her provocative book, The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines discusses a classic medical treatment for the historical diagnosis of “hysteria”: orgasm administered by a physician.

Maines explains that manual stimulation of the clitoris was, for some time, a matter-of-fact part of medical treatment and a routine source of revenue for doctors. By the 19th century, people understood that it was an orgasm, but they argued that it was “nothing sexual.” It couldn’t “be anything sexual,” Maines explains, “because there’s no penetration and, so, no sex.”

So, what ended this practice? Maines argues that it was the appearance of the vibrator in early pornographic movies in the 1920s.  At which point, she says, doctors “drop it like a hot rock.” Meanwhile, vibrators become household appliances, allowing women to treat their “hysteria” at home. It wasn’t dropped from diagnostic manuals until 1957.

Listen to it straight from Maines in the following 7 minutes from Big Think:

Bonus: Freud was bad at this treatment, so he had to come up with some other cause of hysteria. After all, she says, “this was the guy who didn’t know what women wanted.” No surprise there, she jokes.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at http://thesocietypages.org/socimages)

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Posted by Marianna Sharp

By Marianna Sharp (Guest Contributor)

It was the summer of 1778, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, and the Americans needed information. Specifically, they needed information about British activities in New York, which served as an important naval base. In order to get it, a Continental officer named Benjamin Tallmadge would recruit his childhood friends and neighbors to create the war’s most successful intelligence network (“The Culper Spy Ring”).

The Continental Army had previously tried to infiltrate New York by sending Nathan Hale to gather intelligence, but the mission suffered from poor planning and worse execution. It did not take long for a British officer to recognize Hale, who was quickly captured and hanged (Wilcox).


“13 Star Betsy Ross Flag” uploaded by Masturbis, Wikimedia Commons

Tallmadge set out to create his network with the problems the Hale mission had encountered on his mind (Wilcox). By utilizing a network of people, with some collecting information and others transporting the information from one location to another, the mission would not depend solely on one man and would not fall apart entirely if a single member was captured. Additionally, they would encrypt their messages so that even if a courier were intercepted by the British any information he was carrying would be unreadable.

Rather than using soldiers, who would have needed to go undercover to carry out their mission, Tallmadge recruited civilians. Many of the group’s members were from Tallmadge’s hometown of Setauket, New York, and were people Tallmadge had known all his life. In fact, Tallmadge’s first agent, Abraham Woodhull, had been his friend since they were children. Woodhull went by the code name Samuel Culper (or Culper Sr.), and today the group is known as the Culper Ring (Wilcox). The network also included business owners located in New York City who could listen in on British conversations and observe some of their activities without arousing too much suspicion.

The Culper Code Book

Because the spies were civilians without any formal training, the encryption system needed to be simple to use—but it also needed to be able to resist cryptanalysis if a message was captured by the British. The solution to this was to utilize a code contained in a numerical dictionary. Tallmadge chose 710 words and 53 proper names and assigned each of them a number from 1 to 763. The list was ordered alphabetically, and members of the ring who had one of the code books could look up the number of each word used in their message. If a number needed to be encrypted (for example, if a spy was relating the number of troops moving in a certain direction) the digits 0-9 were to be replaced with letters in order to avoid confusion (“The Culper Code Book”).

An obvious problem with this method is that, because numbers stand for whole words rather than individual letters, if a word is not in the dictionary there is no way to encode it. Fortunately, Tallmadge also included a substitution cipher for this purpose. A substitution cipher is created by replacing each letter of the alphabet with a different letter (or other symbol). For example, the cipher used by the Culper Ring replaced A with E, J with D, and K with O (“The Culper Code Book”).

On its own, this type of cipher is dangerous to use for matters of military intelligence because it can be easily broken through a process known as frequency analysis. The cryptanalyst analyzes the letters of the intercepted ciphertext and notes the frequency with which each occurs. He then compares these frequencies with the frequencies of each letter in the language of the message.

For example, the letter “E” is the most frequently used letter in the English language, with a frequency of about 12.7%. A British cryptographer looking at messages sent by the Culper Ring would soon notice that the letter “I” was appearing most frequently, and could therefore easily deduce that it represented “E.” This process becomes more and more accurate as more ciphertext using the same cipher is intercepted, and this made the Culver Ring’s cipher even weaker: because they did not change codebooks, their cipher remained the same throughout the war.

However, the strength of the numerical dictionary makes up for this weakness. Cryptanalysts were able to solve ciphers in which each letter is simply replaced by a different letter or symbol but when whole words were encrypted with a single number their methods failed. The contents of the message remained a mystery to all but the intended recipient, who was in possession of the key.

1 if by land, 2 if by sea—Longfellow

e 281 50 347, f 281 50 588—mqpajimmqy

 Example of the code and cipher used by the Culper Ring

Although the code was simple to implement, some of the spies in the ring did not always encipher the entirety of their message. For some, this simply meant that a few words, such as “in” or “only,” were written in plaintext—nothing that could give away the purpose of the message. Woodhull, however, would often write almost the entire message in plaintext, using the code only to encipher critical information such as names and dates (Wilcox).

Fortunately for the Americans, there is no record of one of these messages being captured or deciphered by the British. However, it was still a dangerous method, as information about the type of intelligence being collected by the spy ring could still be inferred from such a message. One of the most surprising examples of someone who chose not to use the code is Caleb Brewster. Brewster worked as a spy and courier for the ring and blatantly disregarded the safety offered by the code when signing his letters: he was so confident in his ability to evade capture that he signed his full name rather than using his number, 725 (Wilcox). (Although this confidence may have been unwise it was perhaps justified—the British never did manage to get their hands on Brewster.)

Beyond Encryption: Other Methods to Maintain Secrecy

The Culper Ring used other methods as well which, although not strictly cryptography, still aided them in sending secret messages to one another. For example, Anna Strong, one of Woodhull’s neighbors, used her clothesline to inform couriers of when and where to meet. A black petticoat meant that it was time for a meeting, and the number of white handkerchiefs on the line indicated the location in which the meeting would take place (Wilcox).

The group also made frequent use of steganography, the practice of hiding a secret message within another, seemingly innocent, message. Tallmadge or Washington himself would send what was apparently a shopping list into the city. The list would both serve as an excuse for the courier’s desire to enter the city and as a vehicle for transporting the true message, which was written in invisible ink in between the lines of the list. When the courier left the city, his purchased supplies would include a ream of paper—a few sheets of which contained a reply message in invisible ink (Wilcox).

Throughout the war the Culper Ring was responsible for bringing a wealth of information about British plans and movements to Washington and his army. The security and simplicity of their code allowed the ring’s to easily use civilians as secret operatives writing and carrying sensitive military messages. Although they are often left out of ordinary history classes, the members of the Culper Ring played a vital role in many of the successes of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. (n.d.). The Culper Code Book. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-revolutionary-war/george-washington-spymaster/the-culper-code-book/

HISTORY. The Culper Spy Ring. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2014, from http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/culper-spy-ring

Wilcox, J. (2012). Revolutionary Secrets: The Secret Communications of the American Revolution. National Security Agency. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from https://www.nsa.gov/about/_files/cryptologic_heritage/publications/revolution/Revolutionary_Secrets_2012.pdf


Nov. 20th, 2014 08:09 am
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Posted by Dave Hingsburger

We were Christmas shopping, in a large, large store. The snowfall must have turned on everyone's need to get out and shop for gifts because the store, and the mall it was attached to was packed. Just packed. We'd not been to this mall or this store for a very long time and Joe and I found ourselves wandering around quite lost. We were looking for the entertainment department but seemingly could only find women's lingerie and men's boots. Finally, with help from two different store employees, we were going in the right direction.

I was about to turn a right angle that would allow me to go from one aisle to another. Predictably it was chaos. I saw a young fellow headed towards me, walking forwards while looking backwards at something that caught his eye. I came to a stop, I was unable to back up out of his way so I called out to him. Hearing me he turned and made a quick turn to his left which avoided a crash. He smiled and said, jokingly 'Ooops.'

Then, out of nowhere, came his mother, she had seen the near crash from a distance and she grabbed his arm and yanked him further out of my way. She then shoved her face towards me and said loudly, "He's got low vision, a disability you know, LOW VISION."

I was immediately offended. Firstly, he didn't run into me because of 'low vision' or because of disability, he nearly ran into me because he was distracted for a moment. This wasn't a disability issue. In fact when I spoke to him he turned and SAW me and then adjusted his path. I had no idea he had low vision or a disability until his mother grabbed him and yanked him the way she did. I suspected difference because I don't see a lot of mom's of men in their late twenties grab them like they are four. The difference was confirmed when she yelled out to me that he had low vision.

I said, "He may have low vision, but his hearing's fine, do you really need to yell out his personal information?"

As I said this I saw something in his face, something light up, "Yeah, mom, you always do that, I don't like it."

She was shocked.

And, of course, with tiring predictability, angry.

She grabbed him and they were on their way, she talking quickly and angrily to him.

Why do people do that?

I think it's an odd form of Münchausen syndrome by proxy.

You know that syndrome where care providers get attention by creating or fabricating illnesses and disease in those who they are caring for in order to reap attention. I think this is a little like that. I say this because I see very, very, few parents who loudly proclaim their child's disability or diagnosis to the world in an almost random manner. But this has happened to me before, once or twice, and not always by a parent, sometimes by a paid care provider, and each time it seemed to me that the care provider was saying: HE IS SPECIAL AND THAT MAKES ME SPECIAL BECAUSE I AM CARING FOR HIM. I AM HEAVEN SENT TO CARE FOR A SPECIAL CHILD.

That poor guy handled the near crash with adeptness and humour. so much so that I would never have guessed that he too had a disability.

Yet the way he was treated.

The way he was spoken about - as if he had no right to privacy.

Disability shouldn't mean ill treatment or loss of boundaries - but it does, far too often, it does.  
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Posted by Jack Stubblefield

By Jack Stubblefield (Guest Contributor)

Mystery Language: Rongorongo

If only the Moai statue in the movie, Night at the Museum, had said more than just calling Ben Stiller “Dum dum” perhaps a long lost language could finally have been deciphered. The “Rongorongo” glyphs of Easter Island (indigenously known as Rapa Nui) have remained unsolved for hundreds of years.

Between the years of 300 AD-1200 AD, the Polynesian people migrated and established what is now known as Easter Island (Martin). After an originally successful civilization, the Polynesians overpopulated and overused their resources which resulted in an eventual population decline. In 1722, European explorers further cut into their population by bringing diseases, also giving the island its more popular name “Easter Island”(Martin). Nobody is exactly sure when the Rongorongo texts were written, but historians have determined that the language predates the arrival of the Europeans in the 1700s (Martin).


June 4, 2008 Author: Penarc, creative commons licensed

The major discovery of the Rongorongo glyphs occurred in 1868 almost accidentally. The Bishop of Tahiti was given a strange gift of one of these texts (Martin). The text consisted of hieroglyphic writing carved on a small wooden board. However, he was unable to find anyone on Easter Island who understood the language and could decipher the text due to the fact so many of the indigenous people had been lost to disease and slavery.

Although the Rongorongo texts have never been interpreted, cryptographers and historians have determined certain characteristics of the hieroglyphics. The texts were primarily written as historical accounts of the Polynesian people and were not intended to be secret texts. Rather, they chronicled all the historical events of their civilization. At first, the texts were written on paper created from banana leaves; however, after the leaves started to rot, the King had the elite class rewrite the historical texts onto toromiro wood tablets (Martin).

The major impediment to translating the Rongorongo texts is the sheer number of glyphs. The texts contain over one hundred twenty different basic glyphs with almost five hundred other variations on these glyphs (Stollznow). The glyphs include human and animal forms along with geometric shapes. The animals include many birds while the shapes often represent common items the Polynesian people used on Rapa Nui. Since it is a distinctive language and not a text representing other letters, there is not a special key for decoding it.

It is thought that Rongorongo glyphs may represent idiosyncratic mnemonic devices meant to remind the reader of something that is representative of something else, such as using a “knot” symbol used to represent marriage (Martin). This differs from almost all written forms of languages today that have characters representing only sounds or only letters.

Rongorongo texts contain a mixture of symbols and a phonetic alphabet written in a unique style known as reverse boustrophedon (Ager). The text begins in the lower left corner and is read left-to-right. Then the text must be turned one hundred and eighty degrees to read the next line left-to-right, and the process is repeated with each line.

Many people have tried to decipher the Rongorongo hieroglyphics over the last century and a half but have failed to unlock the mystery of this unique language. Although Rongorongo was not created to hide the meaning of the writer, it has been highly successful in keeping its secrets. If someone is able to finally interpret this language, they could use it to send secret messages and would have an enormous advantage over the cryptanalysts.

For example, during World War II, the United States used the Navajo code talkers to help send messages to American troops overseas (Singh-Chapter 5). Even when the enemy intercepted these messages, they were unable to decipher them because the Navajo language, only spoken and not written, was such an obscure language with no written history. The Navajo code talkers illustrate to us what happens when people use an obscure language with no key to send encoded messages. The United States military was able to expediently send messages to the U.S. army without any worries of cryptanalysts trying to intercept the message.

The Navajo Code is the only wartime code/cipher that was never deciphered by the enemy because our military went to extremes to make sure that a code talker never fell into enemy hands. This could allow the enemy to torture the code talker into giving away some of the secrets of the code allowing a crib to be developed. Even a few words could help the enemy decipher a code. For example, cryptographers were able to use the encrypted annual birthday messages sent to Hitler to decipher parts of the German code because the meaning of the messages was so obvious.

The Future of Cryptography?

If someone was able to use the Rongorongo hieroglyphic language or create a different language that only the sender and receiver know, then it wouldn’t matter if someone intercepted the message because it would be impossible to decipher the message. The interceptor would not be able to decipher the text because there is no key involved in solving the message and no crib could be developed. Using an entirely different language that only the sender and the receiver understand could be groundbreaking because the methods used to decipher a code or cipher would not apply. The only way to break the code would be by knowing the language.

For example, imagine how much more difficult it would have been for the British cryptanalysts in their quest to solve the Enigma machine during World War II if they had not known the German language at all. It would be impossible. This is what makes the Rongorongo texts nearly indecipherable.

For future military actions, many countries should consider using this tactic for sending secret messages. Although it would be time consuming at first to learn an entirely new language that does not relate to any current languages, the result would be worth the difficulties because it would be more efficient in sending quick messages with no concern of interceptors. A new breed of “code talkers” could be used to be dedicated to learning and using the code. The Rongorongo hieroglyphics may show us the next step in cryptography. This could be a check mate for the cryptanalysts because this new innovation in cryptography could put cryptographers ahead in the race for keeping secret messages safe.

This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Martin, L. (n.d.). Parrot Time – Issue 5 – Contents. Parrot Time – Issue 5 – Contents. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.parrottime.com/index.php?i=5&a=50&p=all

Wooden tablet with rongorongo inscription. (n.d.). British Museum. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aoa/w/wooden_tablet_with_rongorongo.aspx

Ager, S. (n.d.). Rongorongo script.Rongorongo script. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.omniglot.com/writing/rongorongo.htm

Stollznow, K. (2014, August 21). Rongorongo: The Mysterious Writing System of Easter Island. Karen Stollznow. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://karenstollznow.com/rongorongo-the-mysterious-writing-system-of-easter-island/

Singh, S. (1999). The Language Barrier. In The code book: The evolution of secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots, to quantum cryptography. New York: Doubleday.

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Posted by Fred Clark

Looking for something else, I came across Adam Gopnik’s 2008 New Yorker essay: “The Back of the World: The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton,” which was published to mark the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the writer’s dazzling masterpiece, The Man Who Was Thursday. (That novel really is an astonishing thing — creepy and hilarious, enlightening and bewildering. You should read it. You’re welcome.)

Chesterton is, like Oscar Wilde, more quoted than read, and he is, as Gopnik writes, “an easy writer to love …”

– a brilliant sentence-maker, a humorist, a journalist of endless appetite and invention. His aphorisms alone are worth the price of admission, better than any but Wilde’s. Even his standard-issue zingers are first-class — “Americans are the people who describe their use of alcohol and tobacco as vices;” “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle;” “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no true patriot would think of saying. … It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober’” — while the deeper ones are genuine Catholic koans, pregnant and profound: “Blasphemy depends on belief, and is fading with it. If anyone doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor.” Or: “The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.” Or: “A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.”

That’s terrific stuff. Chesterton had a knack for making his insights sound like jokes and his jokes sound like insights. But he is also, to use the current euphemism, problematic, as Gopnik also discusses: “Those of us who are used to pressing his writing on friends have the hard job of protecting him from his detractors, who think he was a nasty anti-Semite and medievalizing reactionary, and the still harder one of protecting him from his admirers, who pretend that he was not.”

Gopnik’s essay is particularly sharp in confronting, and trying to understand, Chesterton’s “Jew-hating”:

A reader with a casual interest in Chesterton’s life may have a reassuring sense, from his fans and friendly biographers, that his anti-Semitism really isn’t all that bad: that there’s not much of it; that a lot of it came from loyalty to his younger brother Cecil, a polemical journalist in the pre-war years, and to his anti-Dreyfusard friend Belloc; that he had flushed it out of his system by the mid-twenties; and, anyway, that it was part of the time he lived in. …

Unfortunately, a little reading shows that there’s a lot of it, that it comes all the time, and that the more Chesterton tries to justify it the worse it gets.

And towards the end of his essay, Gopnik grapples with the fact that Chesterton’s anti-Semitism “is not incidental” but is inextricably tied up with the underlying logic and philosophy at the core of his thinking. As with Martin Luther, “The anti-Semitism is easy to excise from his arguments when it’s explicit. It’s harder to excise the spirit that leads to it.”

That concluding argument is, I think, a smart and wise discussion and a helpful one for anyone who admires Chesterton and his often otherwise admirable writing. But here I’m not so much interested in Chesterton himself as I am in what we can learn from him about how bigotry works.

Here was a brilliant, educated man with a nimble wit, religious devotion, and a capacity for empathy, irony and humility. And yet even he managed to wind up obsessively consumed by the willful ignorance, stupidity, blasphemy and arrogance of bigotry. He had education, Jesus, and a sense of humor — three things that it seems ought to preclude such crude prejudice and hate. Yet they did not rescue him. Or, at least, he did not allow them to rescue him. He still swallowed whole all the cognitive tricks that such bigotry teaches and requires — and then fortified them with his formidable intellect, religious fervor, and wit.

After World War I, Gopnik writes, “Chesterton’s hatreds became ugly and obsessive”:

From then on, however, Chesterton hammers relentlessly at the idea that there is “a Jewish problem,” the problem being that Jews are foreigners, innately alien to the nations into which they’ve insinuated themselves. Writing in 1920, he tells us that Jews are regarded, by the Arabs in Palestine, as “parasites that feed on a community by a thousand methods of financial intrigue and economic exploitation.” Chesterton then adds that this charge may not be entirely true but needs to be addressed by the Jews — as though they were compelled to consider themselves permanently on trial by their persecutors. Later in the decade, writing about a journey to America, he says, in defense of Henry Ford, “No extravagance of hatred merely following on experience of Jews can properly be called a prejudice. … These people of the plains have found the Jewish problem exactly as they might have struck oil; because it is there, and not even because they were looking for it.”

It’s a deeply racial, not merely religious, bigotry; it’s not the Jews’ cupidity or their class role — it’s them. In his autobiography, Chesterton tries to defend himself by explaining what it is that makes people naturally mistrust Jews. All schoolboys recognized Jews as Jews, he says, and when they did so “what they saw was not Semites or Schismatics or capitalists or revolutionists, but foreigners, only foreigners that were not called foreigners.” Even a seemingly assimilated Jew, in Chesterton’s world, remains a foreigner. No one born a Jew can become a good Englishman: if England had sunk into the Atlantic, he says, Disraeli would have run off to America.

The dynamics here, the mental mechanics and gymnastics at work, are all too familiar to anyone who has ever visited the United States. Everything Chesterton says there about “the Jews” is precisely what white American culture has been teaching for centuries about “the blacks.” Them. Perpetual foreigners whose citizenship is always, and will always be, suspect. Parasites. Self-evidently other. “People naturally mistrust” them because they’re a separate category — not a part of the category of “people.”

And then, in our more generously liberal moments, a passing acknowledgement that all of these accusations may not be entirely true in every case, but that they still need to be addressed by the accused who are “compelled to consider themselves permanently on trial.” The existence of the prejudice is thereby acknowledged, but only in order to claim that its existence somehow is self-justifying. Where there’s smoke there must be fire. Guilty unless proven somewhat less guilty. We couldn’t possibly be treating them this way if they didn’t somehow deserve it.


“Foreigners, only foreigners that were not called foreigners.”

Chesterton’s crooked construct of what he insisted on calling “the Jewish problem” can help us better understand the crooked lies embedded in white American culture that insist on imagining white America has a “Black Problem.” They are the same lies — the same deliberate deceptions and delusions. This is the infernal mechanism, the cognitive machinery of hate. This is how bigotry works, and how it persists.

A grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, is preparing to announce whether or not charges will be filed against a white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. Watch the way this is discussed and the way this discussion is framed. It will be, as it has been, discussed in corrosive, corrupt terms that echo Chesterton’s vile anti-Semitism. The other is identified, classified as a perpetual foreigner, and defined as a “problem” that must somehow be dealt with. We will be given “both sides” of this debate — the side that argues that it is sad and regrettable when lethal police violence is administered lawlessly in response to the Black Problem, and the side that argues that such extra-legal lethal violence may sometimes be appropriate and necessary as a response to the Black Problem.

Both sides will lament that it has come to this, and they will shake their heads sadly that, after so many generations, the Black Problem remains intractable.

The Simply Complex Cipher: Chaocipher

Nov. 19th, 2014 08:02 pm
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Posted by Matthew Gu

By Hamza Patel (Guest Contributor)


“She was an open book to me, All of it in Code,” Jocko Benolt, Flickr (CC)

Imagine a cipher machine so simple that it could fit inside a cigar box. Now imagine that this same cipher was so complex that it remained unsolved for a half century. In fact, it could only be solved after the family of the inventor revealed the logistics of the simple machine. John F. Byrne accomplished this exact feat with the Chaocipher system he invented in 1918.

John Byrne was born in Ireland in 1880, and he was an extremely close friend of the famous writer, James Joyce. He moved to New York in 1910, and took up a position as a writer. In the year of 1918, Chaocipher was nothing more than an idea in John Byrne’s head. But from 1920 onward, chaocipher would become Byrne’s sole passion (Rubin 2011).

Byrne tried multiple times in the years between 1918 and 1953 to bring his “indecipherable” cipher to the attention of the United States government. He tried approaching people in the U.S. cryptanalyst department and even the Navy, but he was turned down multiple times. The main reason for this rejection was that Byrne was not a cryptanalyst, so he did not understand certain implications when asked to disclose information about specific bits of the cipher, including multiple copies of plaintext and ciphertext. He refused to send the full details of his chaocipher system with several plaintexts and ciphertexts, replying that his system was truly indecipherable (Rubin 2011).

It was not until Byrne published his autobiogSilent Yearsraphy, Silent Years, in 1953 that the Chaocipher was finally available to the public. One of the main reasons John published his novel was to disclose the information about this cipher. He included examples of enciphered texts such as the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address to give the reader examples of ciphertext and plaintext pairs (Rubin 2011). The real challenge presented in the novel was to figure out the chaocipher system itself and decipher the challenge ciphertext.

There were many failed attempts at solving the Chaocipher from the time of the autobiography to the time of its disclosure. David Kahn incorrectly assumed that the cipher was an autokey cipher, which is a cipher that includes parts of the plaintext in the key itself. This means that the plaintext being enciphered creates parts of the key as it is being enciphered.

In the latter half of the 1970s, members of the American Cryptogram Association unsuccesfully tried to contact Byrne’s son in the hopes of convincing him to disclose information regarding the cipher. Byrne’s son did not want the machine his father worked so hard on to be revealed so easily to the general public. He did, however, reveal several hints as to how the chaocipher system worked several years later. But people were still stumped.

As late as 2009, cryptanalysts were still trying to figure out the workings of the chaocipher system. In 2010, the chaocipher was finally revealed to Rubin by Patricia Byrnes, John Byrne’s son’s widow. Then on June 2, Rubin published the first full disclosure of the chaocipher system, revealing its inner mechanism (Rubin 2011).

The Inner Mechanism of the Chaocipher

The basic model of Byrne’s machine consists of two wheels, each with the entire alphabet on removable tabs around its periphery (Cowan 2010). The alphabets are arranged in a clockwise manner on the right disk and an anticlockwise manner on the left one. The right disk consists of the plaintext letters while the left disk consists of the ciphertext letters.

Let’s say we are trying to encipher the letter “L.” We will rotate the right wheel so that this letter is at the top of the wheel. Since the wheels are connected like gears, turning the right wheel also turns the left. For simplicity, let’s assume that that turning the left wheel also results in the letter “L” and that the wheels are in alphabetical order. So in this case, the letter “L” would be enciphered as the letter “L.”

Now the alphabets on both disks must be permuted in order to encipher the next letter. For the left disk, we must extract the letter to the left of the letter that was just used to encipher the plaintext letter. Then shift all the letters to the left of the extracted letter up to the bottom letter of the disk to the right to fill up the space of the extracted letter. Finally, insert the extracted letter into the space that is now empty at the bottom of the disk (Rubin 2010).

In our example with the letter “L,” the letter “M” would be extracted, and all of the letters up to the letter “Y” will be moved to the right in order to fill the space that the extracted “M” left. Finally, the letter “M” will be placed at the bottom position of the disk in the position that “Y” had previously. This process is repeated for every new encipherment of every new letter. The sequence of letters would go from this:

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 12.48.04 PM

To this:

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 2.56.33 PM
Next, we must permute the right disk. The permutation of the right disk is slightly different from that of the left disk. After the first letter is enciphered, the disk is rotated by itself one more position to the left. Now, the letter that is two letters to the right of the letter that is currently at the top is extracted. Then, all of the letters to the right of that letter up to the bottom letter of the circular disk are shifted to the left in order to cover up the space that is left by the extracted letter (Rubin 2010).

In our example with the letter “L,” the disk will first be rotated to the left so that “M” is at the top. Then the letter two letters to the left of “M,” “O,” will be extracted. Then every letter up to the letter “Z,” which is at the bottom of the disk, will be shifted to the left. Finally “O” will be placed at the bottom of the disk. This permutation process is repeated with every new encipherment. This repetition causes the entire alphabet on both wheels to quickly permute into an entirely different sequence of letters. The sequence of letters would go from this:

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 12.40.48 PM

To this:

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 3.01.29 PM

Once the entire process is revealed, the Chaocipher becomes very simple (Rubin 2010). How then did it remain unsolved for so long? There are several reasons. No one knew how the cipher was constructed, so no one conceived of the way John Byrne used the alphabet disks. The only information given was the ciphertext and the plaintext. But now, how does one go about deciphering a message encrypted by this Chaocipher process? Deciphering the Chaocipher is similar to enciphering. The only difference is that the cipherer must locate the ciphertext on the left disk and find the corresponding letter on the right disk. Permuting the disks is the exact same as it is for the process of enciphering (Rubin 2011). It is a forward and reverse process in and of itself.

The cipher violates Kerkchoff’s principle, the principle that states that the strength of the system is determined by how strong the cipher is assuming that the enemy has full information as to how the cipher was constructed. Once the process was revealed, cracking the cipher becomes very simple.

Yet, this two wheel permutation algorithm did remain elusive from even the nation’s best cryptanalysts for over fifty years. What makes this cipher impressive is that Byrne never had any real formal training in cryptography. Even more impressive, the chaocipher algorithm was never actually found; it was only revealed. The Chaocipher truly is one of the simplest yet most complex ciphers developed in modern cryptography.

This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Cowan, Michael J. (2010). Chaocipher: Solving Exhibits 1 and 4. Retrieved from http://www.cryptoden.com/articles/Chao%20paper%20.pdf.

Rubin, M. (2010). Chaocipher Revealed: The Algorithm.

Rubin, M. (2011). John F. Byrne’s Chaocipher Revealed: An Historical and Technical Appraisal. Cryptologia, 35(4), 328-379.

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Posted by Nathan Dumessa

By Nathan Dumessa (Guest Contributor)


“Good Bye.” by Zarko Drincic via Flickr CC.

What is the best way to keep your secret messages safe? Using a cipher that is deceptively simple. This is what makes the Playfair cipher stand out among the other ciphers.

Charles Wheatstone may be more famous for his contributions to the invention of the telegraph, but what some may not know is that he invented the Playfair cipher, which he named after his friend, Lyon Playfair. Wheatstone was also an important figure in the study of vision. He made a revolutionary contribution with his invention of the stereoscope in 1838 (Banerjee, 2014). This was one of his greatest inventions that led to his popularity. In addition, his work on the telegraph may have led to the creation of the Playfair cipher. After all, the invention of the telegraph was a game-changer in the world of cryptography.

One of the most famous uses of the Playfair Cipher involved John F. Kennedy during World War II (Lyons, n.d.). He was able to send a message encrypted using this cipher when his PT-109 sank in the Solomon Islands and managed to get his crew and himself rescued.

What I really admire about this cipher is how simple it can seem, but is actually difficult to decipher. The structure of the Playfair cipher is a 5×5 grid of the English alphabet. This will of course exclude a letter, but in this cipher, the letters I and J are combined to represent one letter. Similar to the Keyword Cipher, the Playfair cipher also uses a keyword. The rules for the keyword apply here as well with the addition of one new rule: If any letter is repeated in the key, it is eliminated, the entire grid has to contain all of the letters except for J since it is represented by the letter I, and finally the key cannot contain the letters J and I.

The next step to setting up this cipher is to split up your message into two-letter pairs called digraphs. When doing this, you have to disregard all punctuation and write out any numbers that may be included. Now there are a few restrictions that apply here: Any double letters are separated by the letter X, and if you have an odd number of letters in your message, you add an extra X at the end to make it even, for example, the word BELL would be written as BE LX LX. Now the only thing left is to encrypt the message. So for this example our sentence will be HE RANG THE BELL AT SEVEN PMPlayfair Cipher

The sentence would then be broken apart into: HERANGTHEBELLATSEVENPM


Note that it was not necessary to put an X between the two L’s in the word BELL because they were in two separate digraphs.

The encryption process has a specific algorithm. For our example, we will use the keyword LYON and set up a grid first.

Now to encrypt our message, we will look at each pair of letters at a time.


The way you encrypt each pair is by looking at their locations in the grid, so HE forms a 2×3 rectangle. You start by looking at the H and following it to the E column and you get the letter K. Then you follow the E left to the H column and you get the letter B. So the first pair will be encrypted to KB.

If two letters are located in the same row, you would shift one position to the right. For example, if you are trying to encrypt the letters IM, it would be translated to KP. If the letters are in the same row and in the first or last columns for example LA, you would translate it to YL. Similarly, if two letters are in the same column, you would shift down one position so the letters AP for example, would be encrypted to GU, and following the same pattern, CW would be translated to IY.

So our message would be encrypted to:





“Time Is Running out.. Explored.” By richardbrunsveld.nl. via Flickr CC..

The main weakness of the Playfair cipher is the fact that the sender would have to inform the recipient of the keyword. If an enemy were to intercept this information, the message would be decrypted in a very short amount of time. However, without information on the key, cracking this cipher would prove to be a daunting task.

In attempting to cryptanalyze a message like this, one would first need to figure out whether or not it is a Playfair cipher. The important characteristics are: an even number of letters, no double letters, and if it’s a long message, a frequency analysis that shows no more than 25 letters. Once that is done, most of the approach involves a trial and error method. Contextual evidence would help because it would provide some plausible guesses. Because the cipher is digraphic, substituting a pair of letters at a time, frequency analysis would not be an efficient method to decipher it. Therefore, a cryptanalyst would have to use a different approach to crack this cipher. One thing to consider is that in this cipher, reversed plaintext digraphs correspond to reversed cipher text digraphs, so that would help pick out a few letters.

The Playfair cipher was actually used in World War II by the German army, but instead of using the regular cipher, they used a double Playfair which eliminated the weaknesses in the cipher (Christensen, 2006). In the double Playfair, the first letter of the digraph would be in one grid and the second would be in the other. Therefore, reversed plaintext digraphs would not actually correspond to reversed cipher text digraphs. In addition, double letters could be present in the cipher text which can give a false pattern to a cryptanalyst.

The Playfair cipher is one that is very simple to utilize but time consuming and difficult to decipher. The main weakness is how easy it is to crack it if someone knows the keyword. Otherwise, it is one of the best ciphers to securely encrypt a message as long as your intended recipient knows the key. It is important to note that the keyword is vital. The security of the message depends on the mutual understanding of the key between the sender and recipient and as little written evidence of it as possible.

I will leave you with this:


This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Akins, T. Playfair Cipher. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2014. http://rumkin.com/tools/cipher/playfair.php.

Banerjee, J. (2014, August 15). Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875). Retrieved October 15, 2014. http://www.victorianweb.org/technology/inventors/wheatstone.html

Christensen, C. (2006, January 1). Playfair Cipher. Retrieved October 15, 2014. http://www.nku.edu/~christensen/section%2019%20playfair%20cipher.pdf

Lyons, J. Playfair Cipher. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2014. http://practicalcryptography.com/ciphers/playfair-cipher/

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Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

Lisa Hix has written a really nice story, “Why Black Dolls Matter,” for Collectors Weekly. The history of the topsy-turvy doll really caught my interest. The one below is characteristic. Believed to be from the 1870s, it is the head and torso of a black and a white doll, sewed together in the middle with a long skirt. The doll can be flipped from one side to the other.


The general consensus seems to be that these dolls were primarily for enslaved children, but the purpose of the dolls isn’t clearly understood.

Hix quotes one of the founders of the National Black Doll Museum, Debra Britt, who says that the dolls enabled enslave children to have something forbidden: a doll that looked like them. “When the slave master was gone,” she explained, “the kids would have the black side, but when the slave master was around, they would have the white side.”

At wikipedia, though, the entry for the dolls cites the author of American Folk Dolls, who makes the opposite claim.

It has recently been suggested that these dolls were often made for Black children who desired a forbidden white doll (a baby like the ones their mothers cared for); they would flip the doll to the black side when an overseer passed them at play.

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, author of Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory, suggests that the dolls might not have been disallowed at all. Since enslaved black women often cared for their own children and the children of their white captors, perhaps the doll was designed to socialize young enslaved girls into their future roles as mothers to children of both races. According to Historical Folk Toys, the black doll sometimes was dressed in a headscarf and the white doll in antebellum-style dress, supporting Wallace-Sanders’ theory that the idea was to socialize girls into their role.

And, of course, we have even less of an idea of how the children themselves thought of these dolls or where their imagination led them.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at http://thesocietypages.org/socimages)

Happy Birthday, Zygmunt Bauman!

Nov. 19th, 2014 01:59 pm
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Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

Zygmunt Bauman (1925- ) is a Polish sociologist. Although his work on postmodern capitalism has been very influential, he is arguably most famous for his analysis of modernity and the Holocaust. Rather than a return to barbarism, Bauman argued the Holocaust was not possible without modernity. By modernity he meant the modern concern with ordering, cataloging, creating and following rules, and the division of labor.

Sociological Cinema

1Art by David Moore. H/t Sociological Cinema.

(View original at http://thesocietypages.org/socimages)

NRA: Marriage lessons

Nov. 19th, 2014 01:30 pm
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Posted by Fred Clark

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 282-285

“Rayford Steele was having a crisis of conscience.”

Finally. It was just a few days ago in this story that Rayford Steele landed the Antichrist’s personal jet at San Francisco International Airport. He’d been listening in on his secret eavesdropping device and he knew that, as soon as the plane took off again, Nicolae Carpathia would order his air force to destroy the entire Bay Area with nuclear weapons. Rayford watched as the co-pilot and flight crew left the plane there in San Francisco and he knew they were all doomed. Yet he said nothing — not to them or to anyone.

He knew that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people were about to be killed, and yet he hadn’t tried to warn them, he hadn’t tried to stop it from happening. He hadn’t done anything.

This crisis of conscience seems long overdue.

But that’s not what Rayford’s crisis of conscience is about. He has yet to express any guilt about that. What he feels guilty about, rather, is his marriage. He feels guilty that it’s going so well:

Rayford missed Amanda. In many ways, they still seemed strangers, and he knew that in the little more than five years before the Glorious Appearing, they would never have the time to get to know each other and develop the lifelong relationship bond he had shared with Irene. For that matter, he still missed Irene. On the other hand, Rayford felt guilty that in many ways he was closer to Amanda already that he had ever been to Irene.

So he’s not guilty about silently standing by, or even about compliantly assisting with the nuclear annihilation of several cities and millions of their inhabitants. Rather, Rayford’s conscience is bothered because he’s being such a spiritually awesome husband to Amanda that he “felt guilty” he hadn’t been just as awesome with Irene.

That was his own fault, he knew. He had not known nor shared Irene’s faith until it was too late. She had been so sweet, so giving. While he knew of worse marriages and less loyal husbands, he often regretted that he was never the husband to her that he could have been. She deserved better.

What follows, then, is a long description of how the new, born-again Rayford is now a model husband to Amanda. Rayford begins to reminisce about meeting Amanda and about their cautious, church-based courtship.

PreciousThis is a welcome tangent for readers. Amanda arrived in this story with little introduction. She just kind of showed up, like Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch. Her relationship with Rayford developed off-screen, during the “Eighteen months later” time-skip toward the end of the second book, so even though she’s been around by now for a few hundred pages, readers still don’t know very much about her.

Part of the reason I think I’ve personally had a hard time warming up to Amanda is that the first and primary attribute we’ve learned about her is that she’s in love with Rayford Steele. That seems more of a character liability than an asset. In Chloe’s case, I’m able to look past her inexplicable affection for Buck Williams because she existed as a character prior to and apart from that relationship. We’ve encountered hints of an actual character there — “meta-Chloe” — struggling to assert herself between the lines of the book. We saw the smart young woman who challenged Bruce Barnes’ platitudinous Bildadism and his horrific notion of God’s character — even if the authors then abruptly forced her to abandon that argument, without explanation.

With Amanda, though, all we know is that she admires Rayford. And thus, because Rayford is not in any way admirable, we cannot trust her judgment or respect her character.

Rayford’s little trip down memory lane, then, might have served to re-introduce Amanda as a person — as someone we could identify and evaluate as something other than merely the second Mrs. Steele.

But that’s not what the authors give us here. What this is, rather, is a little homily on the proper role and virtues of a godly Christian wife — a passage that seems so didactic and so designed for small-group Bible study lessons that I’m surprised it didn’t come with “Questions for further reflection” at the end of it.

This homily isn’t purely instructional, though. It also serves a defensive function. The authors here are checking off boxes to satisfy their intended audience’s potential concerns about their respect for traditional marriage. That’s why so much of what we read here about the church-based courtship of Rayford and Amanda is framed negatively — a reassurance that it was not anything that any good Christian reader might disapprove of.

To Rayford, Amanda was a gift from God. He recalled not even having liked her at first. A handsome, wealthy woman slightly older than he, she was so nervous upon first meeting him that she gave the impression of being a jabberer. She didn’t let him or Chloe get a word in, but kept correcting herself, answering her own questions, and rambling.

Jerry Jenkins tells us there about a scene he didn’t bother to write, but my reaction to this un-shown scene seems to be the opposite of Rayford’s as I found it to be the most endearing thing I’ve yet read about Amanda. I’m picturing Emily Gilmore talking like her daughter, which strikes me as delightful. Rayford and the authors don’t seem to share my affection for quality jabbering.

Rayford and Chloe were bemused by her, but* seeing her as a future love interest never crossed his mind. They were impressed with how taken Amanda had been with Irene from her brief encounter. Amanda had seemed to catch the essence of Irene’s heart and soul.

We’ve already been told, repeatedly, that Irene Steele was the model of perfection as the faithful, “biblical,” womanly wife. So when we read that Amanda has caught “the essence” of Irene’s being and identity, what we’re being told is that Amanda is also a perfect, faithful, womanly wife.

And that changes the meaning of everything else we’re about to read about her. It’s no longer something we’re reading to learn about Amanda White, the human being, but becomes instead a description — or list — of the attributes of the Good Christian Wife. This seems less like it’s intended to give readers a better understanding of Amanda as an individual than it is about using Amanda as an object lesson in How To Be A Godly Wife, according to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins:

[Rayford] watched how she assimilated herself into New Hope Village Church. She was cordial to him, but never inappropriate, and never — in his mind — forward. … Amanda did not come off as a flirt to anyone. She quickly became known around New Hope as a servant. That was her spiritual gift. She busied herself about the work of the church. She would cook, clean, drive, teach, greet, serve on boards and committees, whatever was necessary. A full-time professional woman, her spare time was spent in church life. …

From a distance, having hardly socialized with her after that first encounter when she merely wanted to talk to him and Chloe about Irene, Rayford became an admirer. He found her quiet, gentle, giving spirit most attractive. When he first found himself wanting to spend time with her, he still wasn’t thinking of her romantically. He just liked her. Liked her smile. Liked her look. Liked her attitude. …

If that’s supposed to be about Amanda, then why does every word of it work just as well as a description of Loretta? If that’s why Rayford fell in love with Amanda, then why hadn’t he previously fallen in love with Loretta? Is it because, despite having a “quiet, gentle, giving spirit,” she wasn’t also “handsome” and “wealthy”?

Note that this little sermon on the Good Christian Wife is addressed to male and female readers in different ways. For the men, it’s meant to instruct them on what they should be looking for in a GCW — a quiet, submissive servant. For the women, it’s meant to instruct them on how to go about winning the heart of a Good Christian Man and thereby getting themselves a Good Christian Husband. Just put your head down, keep quiet, cook, clean, and serve and the fellas will become admirers who eventually realize they’ve fallen in love. (The clumsy sexism of all of this is infuriating, but I think what angers me more is the possibility that some goodhearted innocent Eleanor Rigby might read this admonition and mistake it for practical advice.)

So despite three pages of Rayford dwelling on how he first met and fell in love with Amanda, we haven’t actually learned anything about Amanda in particular at all. Instead, we’ve just gotten a description of the authors’ idea of a generic church-y woman who submissively does generic church-y stuff.

It’s interesting that this church-y stuff is described in such vague terms. “The work of the church” apparently involves a lot of cooking and cleaning and driving. And there are “boards and committees” that do, you know, board and committee stuff. The authors suggest that they, like Rayford, admire Amanda’s willingness to be a “servant,” but they still seem bored by whatever that might involve — no less able to imagine the work itself whether it’s Amanda or Loretta who’s doing the service.

It’s also strange that this generic description of “the work of the church” at New Hope is no different, in any way, from a similarly generic description of the work of a church here today in our non-Rapture world. Really? This is a brand new congregation of very recent converts living in the extravagantly supernatural world of the Great Tribulation. Every one of them has lost every child they ever knew. Every one of them knows, with certainty, that their church, their jobs, their community, their lives and their entire universe will end in about five years. The city in which most of them work has just been destroyed in a nuclear war, and they know that some day soon — in a few weeks or months at the most — a massive earthquake will kill millions and destroy their towns and homes, followed by a series of escalating global calamities. And sometime soon they’ll all be forced to take the Mark of the Beast or else they’ll face imprisonment, potential execution, and will be prohibited from working or from purchasing anything anywhere.

I’ve joked a lot here about the way the inner-inner-circle of the “Tribulation Force” has insulated and isolated themselves from the rest of the congregation and activity at New Hope. That tempts me to imagine that Rayford, Buck, Chloe and Bruce were simply unaware of the way their fellow church members must surely be busily preparing for the days ahead. The Trib Force members condescendingly admire “servants” like Loretta, but they’re so wholly ignorant of what their service entails that I imagine it’s possible Loretta has been frantically prepping the congregation for the worsening Tribulation — stockpiling water, canned goods and ammunition; setting up a black market network to skirt the Mark of the Beast; coordinating training in First Aid, emergency response, earthquake preparedness and post-Wormwood water filtration.

It’s true that nothing we’ve read even hints that this is what Loretta or the other congregants with their “boards and committees” are up to, but it’s also true that nothing we’ve read hints that Rayford or Buck or the authors would be aware if it was. And since it would be suicidally foolish for the people of New Hope not to be busily doing all of that, it makes more sense to just assume they are.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* This battle is probably lost, but let me still point out that “bemused” and “amused” have not always been synonyms. Even now, dictionaries still insist on defining “bemused” as bewildered, perplexed and baffled. They haven’t yet caught up with the current usage, in which it tends to mean something like a cross between “amused” and “bewitched.”

That’s the sense in which Jenkins seems to be using it here, hence the but in “but seeing her as a future love interest never crossed his mind.” Per the dictionary, that sentence ought to say “and seeing her as a future love interest,” but Jenkins writes “but,” thereby implying that being bemusing is something akin to being wild again, beguiled again, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

The Cosby Show

Nov. 19th, 2014 01:09 pm
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Posted by Ta-Nehisi Coates

On Monday, 66-year old Joan Tarshis accused Bill Cosby of raping her. Tarshis says the attack took place in 1969, when she was 19 and working as comedy writer:

...[H]e told me that he wanted to work on a monologue together, and I had an idea for something about an earthquake that had just happened. It was my first earthquake. I had some funny lines, and he said, Sure, let's work on that. And then? We went up to his cottage after they were done shooting. That's when it happened. He offered me a drink. It was a red eye, a bloody mary topped off with beer. He always made the drinks; he didn't have a bartender.

And then next thing I know, I was being undressed on his couch. I was so out of it. But I remember saying to him — I thought I would outsmart him — I said, I have an infection down there, and if you have sex with me, you're going to get it, and then your wife will know. He immediately switched to another orifice, which was worse....

Yes. He was holding me down. He's much bigger than I am. He's very big. I couldn't resist. He was forceful. He definitely used force. There was nothing I could do except wait for it to be over. I was in shock.

Tarshis is the fifth woman to publicly accuse Bill Cosby of raping her. There is now a sixth—model Janice Dickinson. In a civil suit brought by Andrea Constand, some 13 women were set to testify that Cosby had raped them too. They ultimately did not testify because Constand settled with Cosby. Tarshis says she was not among those 13, and so the total number of accusers appears to now stand at 15 including Dickinson.

Perhaps it is not fair for a journalist to consider, or even publicize, anonymous allegations of criminal activity. Even then we are left with six accusations of sexual assault: Tamara Green sayss that Cosby drugged and groped her in 1970. Beth Ferrier says that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1984. Janice Dickinson says Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982. Barbara Bowman says that Cosby drugged and raped her "multiple times" when she was 17 in 1985.  And Andrea Constand says that Cosby drugged and raped her in 2004. Taken together the public accusations span some 30 years and are remarkably similar in their detail.

Most of these allegations came after Constand sued Cosby in civil court. Her lawyers tracked down several accusers, some of whom wanted to use their names, and some of whom didn't. Perhaps all of these women are lying. Certainly, false criminal allegations happen. It is not unheard of for celebrities to be targeted for false allegations. The Cosby case is different, though, in its sheer volume and lack of ulterior motive—no civil suit, no criminal charges.

A defense of Cosby requires that one believe that several women have decided to publicly accuse one of the most powerful men in recent Hollywood history of a crime they have no hope of seeing prosecuted, and for which they are seeking no damages. The alternative is to see one of the most celebrated public fathers of our time, and one of the great public scourges of black morality, revealed as a serial rapist.

I spent parts of 2006 and 2007 following Bill Cosby around the country. He was then in the midst of giving a series of "call-outs" in which he upbraided the decline of morality in the black community. Our current organic black conservative moment largely springs from these efforts. It's worth distinguishing an "organic black conservative" from a black or white Republican moment. Black Republicans, with some exception, don't simply exist as people who believe in free markets and oppose abortion, but to assure white Republicans that racism no longer exists. Organic black conservatives (like Cosby, for instance) are traditionalists, but they hold no such illusions about America's past. They believe this country to be racist, perhaps irredeemably so, but assert nonetheless that individual effort can defeat trenchant racism. The organic black conservative vision is riding high at the moment. Thus even the NAACP cannot denounce the outriders of Ferguson without the requisite indictment of "black on black crime."

The author of this moment is Bill Cosby. In 2004, he gave his "Poundcake Speech," declaring black youth morally unworthy of their very heritage. Cosby followed the speech with a series of call-outs. I observed several of these call-outs. Again, unlike typical black Republicans, Cosby spoke directly to black people. He did not go on Fox News to complain about the threat of the New Black Panther Party. He did not pen columns insisting the black family was better off under slavery. He was not speaking as a man sent to assure a group that racism did not exist, but as a man who sincerely believed that black people, through the ethic of "twice as good," could overcome. That is the core of respectability politics. Its appeal is broad in both black and white America, and everywhere Cosby went he was greeted with rapturous applause.

I published a reported essay in 2008, in this magazine, on these call-outs. In that essay, there is a brief and limp mention of the accusations against Cosby. Despite my opinions on Cosby suffusing the piece, there was no opinion offered on the rape accusations. This is not because I did not have an opinion. I felt at the time that I was taking on Cosby's moralizing and wanted to stand on those things that I could definitively prove. Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person's word over another, it requires you take one person's word over 15 others.

At the time I wrote the piece, it was 13 peoples’ word—and I believed them. Put differently, I believed that Bill Cosby was a rapist.

Rape constitutes the loss of your body, which is all you are, to someone else. I have never been raped. But I have, several times as a child, been punched, punched/stomped/kicked/bumrushed while walking home from school, and thus lost my body. The worst part for me was not the experience, but the humiliation of being unable to protect my body, which is all I am, from predators. Even now as I sketch this out for you publicly, I am humiliated all again. And this happened when I was a child. If recounting a physical assault causes me humiliation, how might recounting a sexual assault feel? And what would cause me to willingly stand up and relive that humiliation before a national audience? And why would I fake my way through such a thing? Cosby's accusers—who have no hope of criminal charges, nor civil damages—are courting the scrutiny of Cosby-lovers and rape-deniers. To what end?

The heart of the matter is this: A defender of Bill Cosby must, effectively, conjure a vast conspiracy, created to bring down one man, seemingly just out of spite. And people will do this work of conjuration, because it is hard to accept that people we love in one arena can commit great evil in another. It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn't just indict Cosby, it indicts us. It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.

And one cannot escape this chaos by hiding behind the lack of a court conviction. O.J. Simpson was not convicted in court for murdering his ex-wife. The men accused of killing Emmett Till were found innocent. ("If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long," mused one of them.) Police and government forces conspired to kill a Black Panther, Fred Hampton. They were never criminally prosecuted in any court.

Courts belong to the society, not the other way around. This is why many Americans scoff at the idea that OJ was never convicted of killing his wife. And this is why many other Americans scoff at the idea that the government didn't kill Fred Hampton. Ducking behind an official finding is kind of cowardice that allows us the luxury of never facing hard questions. Cowardice can be insidious. Sometimes it is a physical fear. Other times it's just taking the easy out.

I would not dismiss all journalist who've declined to mention these allegations as cowards. It's worth considering what it feels like to, say, have been among those convicting Richard Jewell in the press. And should I have decided to state what I believed about Cosby, I would have had to write a much different piece. It would not have been enough to say, "I believe he is rapist." A significant portion of my reporting, perhaps the lion’s share of my reporting, would have had to be aimed to investigating the claims.

The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else's salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby's moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I'd ever written.

It was not enough.

I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality—and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible.

I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.

This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/the-cosby-show/382891/

A Robin in Winter

Nov. 19th, 2014 07:14 am
[syndicated profile] rollingaroundinmyhed_feed

Posted by Dave Hingsburger

I am sometimes asked, with a bit of hostility mixed with pure disbelief, how I can write a blog every day regarding my experiences as a disabled man. This usually happens whens speaking to someone who also has a little bit of trouble believing my stories about the hostilities and prejudices I face from being different and disabled in the world. Accusations of being 'over sensitive' and 'hyper critical' regarding people who mean well and who have no ill intent in their interactions with me. Then, after informing me that disabled people suffer generosity spurred by compassion rather than prejudice spurred by hatred, I am dismissed.

Similarly, when lecturing, particularly about attitudes, actions and prejudices that people with intellectual disabilities face, I often face people who would really, deeply rather that what I was saying wasn't true. In order to facilitate that, I meet the same kind of accusation, I'm exaggerating to make a point. It's been suggested that my own disability has made me less able to be an accurate observer of such things. (Really!?)

In both situations, I am not speaking of MOST people, either readers here or those who attend my lectures. I am speaking of SOME people. Most get it because most see it themselves.

Well, then, sometimes when I lecture there is another person with a disability in the room. This is always wonderful. Like the other day in California, I saw a woman with a disability, using a wheelchair like mine, but hers was way cooler, roll in. She became my 'rock' for the presentation. I'd look back at her after describing something of the disability experience and she'd be giving me the thumbs up or nodding in that knowing manner. It's the kind of reassurance that you need now and then.

It's not just me.

I'm not what I'm accused of being ... and over sensitive, hyper critical poor observer of my own life.

I share these experiences with others.

At break she came to speak with me, Robin, she has given me permission to use her name, and I had a great chat as we shared experiences and just communed disabled person to disabled person. We had a conversation that could ONLY be had between two people with disabilities. She gave me the gift of confirmation and of true understanding.

It's not just me.

We people with disabilities have something to say about our lives.

I'm privileged to have an audience, mostly of willing listeners and willing readers - but for those who think I go to far and overstate the case, knock on the door of another person with a disability and have a chat. I'm not alone in this. Robin reminded me of that.
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  • 55 works of iconic Indian writer released on Wikisource under a free licence | Wikimedia blog: “A total of 55 Kannada books by Niranjana are re-licensed. “This is the single largest and most comprehensive individual collection of a writer to be released under CC-BY-SA 4.0 in any of the Indian languages so far,” says Kannada Wikimedian Omshivaprakash.”
  • Over 9000: A game about visibility online when you’re a woman, made by Maddy Myers
  • Job Listings That Don’t Alienate (with images, tweets) · kissane | Storify: “I asked for people from communities that are underrepresented in their fields to talk about language in job descriptions that makes them back away, and the reverse—wording or specification that feel inviting. I got a lot of replies. If you make listings/do hiring, you should probably read them.
  • Barbie book about programming tells girls they need boys to code for them | The Daily Dot: “The latest affront to basic decency in gendered toy marketing comes from a Barbie book that tells girls they can’t be game developers or programmers…  Despite its encouraging title, Marenco’s book actually tells preteen girls that Barbie can only contribute to the design of the game she’s building.”
  • What a Huge Difference Those Little Actions Make | Medium: “I’m looking for more examples of positive stories from women in tech. I want to publish a collection of them — a LOT of them — in the hopes that reading them will make more people take that extra step to be welcoming and encouraging. To take that little step that costs nothing but might mean everything to a new, tired, or discouraged coworker.”
  • Night Witches by Bully Pulpit Games | Kickstarter: “Night Witches is a tabletop RPG about Soviet airwomen during World War Two, flying daring night time bombing missions in biplanes.”
  • How It Feels to Land a Spacecraft on a Comet | New York Times: Physicist, woman, person of color Claudia Alexander on landing a spacecraft on a comet: “Once we started getting the data, we are getting what we expected to get, and we know that the field is going to benefit from having made the effort to get this accomplished. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
  • Not All Nerds | The New Inquiry: “Silicon Valley monopolizes our national ideas about the future, aided by a presumption that the industry is exceptionally progressive when it comes to race. It’s this monopoly that turns the idea of putting iPads in the hands of every child into an urgent need. If we are to challenge Silicon Valley as the shining embodiment and most aggressive promulgator of a neoliberal future, then we need to attack its futurity. We can start by emphasizing how woefully retrograde it is—how 19th century its economics are, certainly, but especially its racial politics.”
  • Weather forecasters predict better services for women | Thomson Reuters Foundation: “Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said progress had been made in improving weather forecasts and climate services to protect lives and livelihoods. ‘But if we are to help communities cope with long-term climate change and the anticipated increase in hazards like floods and heat waves, then we need to do more to reach out to women with gender-sensitive services,’ he said.”
  • Pandora Releases Its Staff Diversity Statistics | Complex: “Are we supposed to believe that there are no black, Asian, or Latino people out there that have expertise in music? This is especially strange if you consider that most of the Pandora consumer base is minorities.”
  • Sartorial Misogyny, Feminist Concern Trolling, and the “Little Things”  | Shakesville: “When feminist concern trolls like Dawkins whine about the misuse of feminism, talking about feminism like it’s meant to be kept under glass, broken only in case of a ‘real’ and ‘serious’ emergency, they’re deliberately ignoring how culture works. The ‘little things’ don’t happen in a vacuum, but are part of a spectrum of expressed misogyny that forms a systemic oppression of women.”

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

And with that, she lay down

Nov. 18th, 2014 11:56 pm
[syndicated profile] yarn_harlot_feed

Posted by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

Another retreat is finished, and I think it was the nicest yet.  I know I say that every time, but this time? I really mean it.  I’m too tired to do more than show you pictures, but here they are.  It. Was. Fantastic.

floatplanearrives 2014-11-18 knittersboat 2014-11-18 puttingoutfires 2014-11-18 tinytrees 2014-11-18 vegetables 2014-11-18 Marketplace 2014-11-18 crocuses 2014-11-18 statues 2014-11-18 firerescue 2014-11-18 ladies 2014-11-18 ludlow 2014-11-18 wheeltetris 2014-11-18 luggagetetris 2014-11-18 carson 2014-11-18 knitting 2014-11-18notsoap 2014-11-18 spinning 2014-11-18

floatplane 2014-11-18 workin 2014-11-18

[syndicated profile] ursulav_feed
Okay, so let's talk about happier stuff for awhile!

We're sliding into the end of the year and the award eligibility posts are going up, if any of you are voters in such beasts and so inclined. So, without further ado, here's the stuff I've written this year that might qualify for something!

Flash Fiction:

Godmother - self-published, approx 600 words (as T. Kingfisher)

Short Story:

Jackalope Wives - Apex Magazine (written as Ursula Vernon)
The Dryad’s Shoe - Women Destroy Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine (as T. Kingfisher)
Toad Words  - self published, (as T. Kingfisher)


Boar & Apples - self-published as part of the Toad Words & Other Stories anthology, approx 25K (as T. Kingfisher)


The Seventh Bride - self-published, approx 57K (as T. Kingfisher)


The Hidden Almanac (with Kevin Sonney)

I think that covers everything of significance I've been doing lately. If you are so inclined to vote for one of those, thank you!

Handwritten Russian Cipher Stumps FBI

Nov. 18th, 2014 05:42 pm
[syndicated profile] wonders_and_marvels_feed

Posted by Riley Dankovich

By Riley Dankovich (Guest Contributor)

Hollow Nickel

FBI (2008). The hollow nickel handed to the Brooklyn paperboy

In the wake of World War II, when cryptography had largely become mechanized, no one expected one of the most difficult-to-crack ciphers to be one created using pencil and paper.

In the summer of 1953, a young boy in Brooklyn received payment for a newspaper sale — unlike ordinary payment, one of the nickels was hollow. Something about the nickel seemed strange to the boy; he threw it to the ground, where it promptly split open. Inside was a piece of microfilm with 10 columns of numbers. Within days, word had reached a detective about the hollow nickel, which was quickly turned over to the FBI. The nickel, it turns out, was given to the paperboy by the wife of a Russian spy.

For four years, the FBI struggled with this cipher. They referred to the case as the “Hollow Nickel Case” (Rudolph), as they knew next to nothing else about the cipher text on the piece of microfilm, and had no further cipher text. Fortunately for the FBI, in 1957, a man approached them, declaring that he was a Russian intelligence officer, and wanted to defect. This man was Reino Häyhänen, codenamed “VICTOR,” from which the VIC Cipher, as this cipher came to be called, derives its name. After nearly four years without making much progress, Häyhänen’s defection was the FBI’s lucky break.

Likely the most complex pen and paper cipher ever created, the technical name for the VIC Cipher would be “a ‘straddling bipartite monoalphabetic substitution superenciphered by modified double transposition’” (Kahn). Most hand ciphers are either substitution ciphers, in which the letters are substituted for either other letters or numbers, or transposition ciphers, in which the order of the letters is scrambled. As cryptography became more advanced, cryptographers began to combine the two. The VIC Cipher contains not only a substitution and two transpositions, but also is passed through a straddling checkerboard to obtain the substitution, and then split in half (bipartite). Though this all seems incredibly complicated, the agent enciphering the text needed only to remember four simple key words or phrases, making messages much simpler to encipher for the Russians than to decipher for foreign intelligence.

The Straddling Checkerboard

A straddling checkerboard is a manner in which to obtain a more complex substitution, one that is therefore more difficult to decipher. It needs a keyword, which, in the case of the VIC Cipher, was СНЕГОПА, or “snowfall” in Russian. The numbers 0-9 are scrambled and placed above a ten-column-by-four-row grid.

Transposition Table 1

Riley Dankovich (2014). Straddling checkerboard using the keyword СНЕГОПА (“snowfall”)

Under the numbers, the keyword (СНЕГОПА) is placed in the first row, leaving the last three columns blank. In the next three rows, the rest of the Russian alphabet follows, including a “.” and a “,” as well as the symbols Н/Ц, П/Л, Н/Т, and ПВТ, each of which have a meaning helpful to decipherment. The three numbers above the blanks left by the keyword are placed at the beginning of the second, third, and fourth rows. The letters in the first row, the keyword, will be enciphered as the numbers at the top of their subsequent columns. Any letter in the other rows, however, will be enciphered as two numbers: first, the number at the beginning of its row, and then the number at the top of its column. The word СПОСИБО (“thank you”) would be enciphered as 5 9 8 5 8 20 65 8. Before the plaintext is run through the straddling checkerboard, it is bisected. As a bisected cipher, the plaintext is cut into two parts in some random place, and the first half is attached to the end of the last half. The symbol H/T is placed before the true beginning of the cipher.

Next Comes Transposition Tables

After being run through the straddling checkerboard, what is now the cipher text is run through two transposition tables. This cipher uses three pieces of information (the first twenty letters of a popular Russian song, the date of Allied victory over Japan, and Häyhänen’s personal identification number) to generate a string of seemingly random numbers. These numbers determine the number of columns and rows in the tables, and several other minor factors. The cipher manipulates these three pieces of information, which have all been converted to numbers, using arithmetic modulo 10 and chain arithmetic. In modulo 10 arithmetic, once two numbers are added, the digit in the tens place is dropped. In chain arithmetic, numbers in a series are added continually until a desired series length is reached.

Transposition Table 2

Riley Dankovich (2014). Beginning of Transposition Table 2, with disruption areas outlined

If the original series is, for example, 4, 9, 5, 3 7, the first two digits, 4 and 9, are added together (dropping the tens digit) to get 3, which is then added to the end of the series. Then the second and third digits, 9 and 5, are added to get 4, to get a series of 4, 9, 5, 3, 7, 3, 4, … until the desired series length (one of the factors determined by the seemingly random numbers) is reached. The numbers obtained from the straddling checkerboard are arranged in the first transposition table and then taken out in a different order and put into the second table. The numbers are taken in order from this table to form the final ciphertext.

Transposition ciphers, even without added manipulations, are difficult to decipher, though less so with the use of a strong computer. Because a transposition cipher simply rearranges the letters, the number of possible plaintexts can be determined easily, though the correct one is difficult to determine. If a cipher text has only 10 letters, it will have 10! (10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) possible arrangements. This amounts to upwards of three million possibilities, and the VIC cipher is a great deal longer than 10 letters.

Original VIC cipher

FBI (2008). The original cipher text of the VIC Cipher on microfilm

The VIC Cipher that Häyhäden explained to the FBI was sent to him from the Soviet Union soon after he arrived in the United States. Far from containing sinister instructions, the beginning of the decoded message read (in Russian): “We congratulate you on a safe arrival. We confirm the receipt of your letter to the address “V repeat V” and the reading of letter number 1” (Rudolph). Knowing the mechanism of this cipher, however, allowed the FBI to arrest, among others, Colonel Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, a Russian spy. He was sentenced to prison on three counts of conspiracy. As written in the FBI’s article Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case), “an investigation which had started with a newsboy’s hollow nickel ultimately resulted in the smashing of a Soviet spy ring.”

This cipher, though written with the simplest of utensils, pencil and paper and some arithmetic, stumped the United States’ foremost intelligence bureau for four years. Without the defection of Häyhänen, the world would still probably see the VIC Cipher as only 1035 numbers on microfilm (Kahn).Widely regarded as “the most complex hand-operated cipher ever seen,” the VIC Cipher was, to put it simply, an astronomically impressive feat of cryptographic skill.


This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Book cipher, running key cipher, vic cipher and secom cipher. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://rageuniversity.com/PRISONESCAPE/COMMUNICATION%20CODES%20AND%20INKS/BOOK%20CIPHER,%20RUNNING%20KEY%20CIPHER,%20VIC%20CIPHER%20AND%20SECOM%20CIPHER.pdf

Clarke, B. (2008, October 13). Hollow nickel spy case. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.prc68.com/I/NickelSpy.shtml

FBI. (2008). Hollow Nickel [Photograph], Retrieved October 14, 2014, from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hollow_Nickel.jpg

FBI. (2008). Hollow Nickel Message [Photograph], Retrieved October 14, 2014, from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hollow_Nickel_Message.jpg

Kahn, D. (1993, September 22). Number one from Moscow. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol5no4/html/v05i4a09p_0001.htm

Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (hollow nickel case). (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/famous-cases/hollow-nickel/rudolph-ivanovich-abel-hollow-nickel-case/

...and the bad news.

Nov. 18th, 2014 03:56 pm
[syndicated profile] ursulav_feed
Unfortunately, our beloved Emily the Mad, carrier of stuffed animals, is not doing well.

She was diagnosed with kidney disease earlier this year, a regrettably common affliction among cats. They can go for many years without any notable ill-effects, but there is a sort of tipping point at which suddenly the kidneys fail. (It is likely, in fact, that she had it for quite awhile, but this year has begun to tip.)

She was somewhat distressed Thursday morning before we left, so we took her to the vet to spend the weekend there, in case things got worse while we were traveling. This was probably the best decision we could have made, as she rapidly declined. They pulled her through, somewhat miraculously--"Burning through the nine lives," said our vet--and she has improved dramatically, but she still requires a great deal of intervention--twice daily IV flushes with saline and a lot of tempting with food.

We are bringing her home this afternoon and will be trying to figure out with the vet what scenario we're looking at. We'd prefer she recover completely, of course, and we have many more years of her squonking around the house, but failing that, if her kidney function is gone past the point of no return, we hope she can pass away quietly at home surrounded by her stuffed monkeys. (Frankly, this is how I'd like to go, except maybe for the bit with the monkeys.)

Anyway, think good thoughts if you got 'em, and I'll update as we learn more.

Update: We've brought her home. The vet says that they're basically doing nursing care now, and we can do that easily enough ourselves. She needs a lot of IV fluids and is on an enormous cocktail of meds, but she's much more cheerful and Kevin managed to tempt her into eating a few treats. (A side-effect of the meds is nausea, so her appetite is very poor.)

Our best case scenario is that she pulls through this, continues to improve the way she has, and can taper down on some of the meds and the fluids. Unfortunately, her kidneys are in pretty bad shape. (Quoth the vet, "The bloodwork numbers were above what the test could actually measure--now at least we've gotten them down to "really really high."")

Absolute best case, she's probably got a few more months, maybe up to a year. Which sucks, but we knew once she was diagnosed that she was on borrowed time. We're in nurse mode now until next week, when we'll get more bloodwork done and see what it's looking like.

She is currently sacked out on the bed and purring when petted, so at least she's content with the world, and that's the important thing.

UPDATE: She's drinking on her own (even with the massive amounts of IV we're pumping into her) and is very interested in cat treats. I have to bring them to her and put them in front of her and then pet her, but she'll eat them as long as she doesn't have to do much of anything. So that's a great improvement!

She is also very energetic when fighting off the oral meds. So...err...yay.
[syndicated profile] sociological_images_feed

Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

First, there were the accolades. More than 100 instances of street harassment in a two minute video, testifying powerfully to the routine invasion of women’s lives by male strangers.

Then, there was the criticism. How is it, people asked, that the majority of the men are black? They argued: this video isn’t an indictment of men, it’s an indictment of black men.

Now, we’ve reached the third stage: lessons for research methods classes.

Our instructor is sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, writing at The Message. Our competing hypotheses are three:

1. Black men really do catcall more than other kinds of men.

2. The people who made this video are unconsciously or consciously racist, editing out men of other races.

3. The study was badly designed.

As Tufekci points out, any one of these could account for why so many of the catcallers were black. Likewise, all three could be at play at once.

Enter, the data wrangler: Chris Moore at Mass Appeal.

Moore and his colleagues looked for landmarks in the video in order to place every instance of harassment on the map of New York City. According to their analysis, over half of the harassment occurs on just one street — 125th — in Harlem.


Did the time the producers spent in Harlem involve denser rates of harassment, supporting hypothesis #1. Did they spend an extra amount of time in Harlem because they have something against black men? That’d be hypothesis #2. Or is it hypothesis #3: they were thoughtless about their decisions as to where they would do their filming.

Honestly, it’s hard to say without more data, such as knowing how much time they spent in each neighborhood and in neighborhoods not represented in the video. But if it’s true that they failed to sample the streets of New York City in any meaningful way – and I suspect it is – then hypothesis #3 explains at least some of why black men are over-represented.

And that fact should motivate us all to do our methods right. If we don’t, we may end up offering accidental and fallacious support to ideas that we loathe.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at http://thesocietypages.org/socimages)

The memory will multiply

Nov. 18th, 2014 01:55 pm
[syndicated profile] slacktivist_feed

Posted by Fred Clark

• The amazing Rosetta and Philae mission — landing a robot on a comet half a billion kilometers from Earth — has me thinking of Zefram Cochrane. I mean, even if it bounced, that’s still an impressive achievement. It’s fun to wonder if anyone else may have noticed too.

Glenn Beck offers his own, unique explanation of the “God hates shrimp” dilemma. It involves Nicki Minaj.

• The content of this Christianity Today piece defending seminary education is less significant than the fact that Christianity Today felt the need to publish a piece defending the proposition that theological education might not be altogether harmful. Oy.

• Also at CT, Ruth Moon casts a critical eye on the polling demographic distinction between “white evangelicals” and “Black Protestants.” What Moon and the pollsters she talks to miss here is that “white evangelical” is not a demographic measurement, but a theological category. It’s a white theology shaped by a white hermeneutic of, by and for whiteness. That is its design, its function and its purpose — regardless of how multicultural or ethnically diverse the congregations promoting it may become.

This is a beautiful thing.

• Again, I can’t imagine that the right is going to win any popularity contests with this message:



But that’s the message the right has decided to promote. It’s a bid to capture the pro-buffering vote, I guess.

• “Because the Internet tends toward entropy, this of course ended up with the team tweeting out a jersey with the N-bomb written on it.” That’s Jordan Weissmann on the New England Patriots’ social media mistake of allowing fans unfiltered access to their Twitter feed.

We should note that this Internet “entropy” isn’t random. The downward spiral always leads to the same place: racist, misogynist and homophobic slurs. That’s not really entropy — it’s a concerted attempt to impose order.

Related: Lewis’ Law: “Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”

[syndicated profile] daily_otter_feed

Posted by Daily Otter

Click here for our previous posts on Pup 681! And today at 12:00 Central get a live behind-the-scenes look at Pup 681 and her human friends with a Google Hangout session hosted by Shedd Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium! Register here and follow the conversation at #puphangout.

Sea Otter Pup 681 Is Weighed with Her Toys 8

Sea Otter Pup 681 Is Weighed with Her Toys 9

Sea Otter Pup 681 Is Weighed with Her Toys 10

Sea Otter Pup 681 Is Weighed with Her Toys 11

Sea Otter Pup 681 Is Weighed with Her Toys 12

Sea Otter Pup 681 Is Weighed with Her Toys 13

Sea Otter Pup 681 Is Weighed with Her Toys 14

Sea Otter Pup 681 Is Weighed with Her Toys 15

Sea Otter Pup 681 Is Weighed with Her Toys 16

Thanks to Shedd Aquarium; photos ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez.

The Centre Seat

Nov. 18th, 2014 07:50 am
[syndicated profile] rollingaroundinmyhed_feed

Posted by Dave Hingsburger

On our flight home from San Francisco, we were pre-boarded, as per usual and were warmly greeted by the flight crew. Our seat, as we had chosen, was right at the very back of the plane. We got there, put our stuff away, and got into our seats. Then the plane began to fill with other passengers.

A fellow came to the row ahead of us, and began putting things away in the overhead bin. I noticed, in the way that people do, that he was of a different culture, and colour, and faith than I was. I say this, because it's true, and because noticing doesn't mean anything. I saw that he noticed that I was fat, I wasn't offended by his noticing, because, well, people notice.

Aside from everything else I want to say here that I don't like or appreciate when people claim NOT to notice difference. "I don't see your disability," said someone to me a few weeks ago. It was meant as a compliment because, of course, disability is something best not seen. Well, I am disabled, I am fat, I'm good with that, I'm good with people noticing too. Staring, mocking, and other forms of social violence, I'm not good with ... but notice is just notice.

Back to what I wanted to write about.

As it turned out the fellow sitting in front of me had two empty seats beside him. Somewhere about a half an hour into the flight he moved over to the centre seat. I was on the aisle, Joe was by the window, the centre seat was free. He then turned back to me and asked if him putting his seat back would be in my way at all. I told him that it wouldn't be. He then reclined his seat and napped for much of the flight. (I wish I could do that.)

When we landed, as we were at the back of the plane and as we had to wait for my wheelchair to come up from the hold of the plane, Joe and I just waited. Acting to fulfil a resolution I've made to say thanks when thanks is due - something that should be automatic but, for me, isn't - I leaned forward and touched his shoulder to get his attention. He turned to me with some alarm in his face.

I said, 'Excuse me,' and I saw the alarm increase as he realized I was going to speak with him. A total stranger was going to say something and it caused him tension. I noticed this, in the way that people do, but continued.

'You are a kind man,' I said, 'I appreciated you moving over and using the centre seat to recline, it was really considerate and it made my flight better.'

Relief flooded his face, he said, quietly, 'My faith leads me to kindness.' He looked at me, like I might disagree.

'And mine leads me to gratitude, we're a good pair,' I said and he laughed.

As he gathered his stuff and readied to leave the plane, he turned and said, 'Thank you. Just, thank you.'

I am very aware of what it is to live different in a world hostile to difference. I am very away of the constant threat of conversations becoming confrontations. I am very aware.

For me.

I can forget that there are other differences. Other dangers for other people. Perhaps if more were moved to kindness and more were moved to gratitude our world can change. I'm not exactly sure how, but I know that I have been changed because of that brief conversation on the plane. I think my heart may be a little wiser because it knows it has to also be a little bigger.


Nov. 18th, 2014 01:34 am
[syndicated profile] ursulav_feed
I was the Toastmaster for WIndycon 41! It was awesome. I mastered a lot of toast. That toast didn't know what hit it.

Also, I was made to talk in public, but that seems to have gone pretty well. Nobody threw things at me. I will never be an improv actor or stand-up comic, but with a friendly crowd hoping that Opening Ceremonies will not run four hours long, I am generally capable of being funny without being malicious and keeping a running commentary going, which is 95% of the job. The other 5% is reading little scraps of paper that people keep handing you with desperately vital announcements on them, usually written in somewhat cramped cursive that you are puzzling out while trying to talk.

It was fun and I was fairly lightly scheduled and didn't do a dealer's table, so it all worked very well. Got to see many great friends, drink with some of them, hang out with lots of authors (many of whom are also friends), be on panels that were occasionally contentious and eat ghost pepper ice cream. I regretted one of those decisions very much.

Kevin was inducted as a member of Dorsai Irregulars, a con security group that he's been working with for a few years, so my booth babe is now lost to me forever and Taliabear will probably be stuck helping me man tables until we are old. (And if any of you from Security comes after HER, swear to god, I will cut you.)

If you are unfamiliar with any of these people or with how con security functions, just assume Kevin won a lifetime achievement award for "Most Likely To Run Toward The Sound Of Vomiting."* The award is shaped like a hat. Anyway, I'm proud.

As is usually the case after a weekend of extroversion, I slept for approximately fourteen hours today and plan to do so again tomorrow. Lotta fun, would do it again, need nap now.

*This is 20% of con security. 40% is giving directions, 20% is checking badges and managing signing lines, and the other 20% of classified.
[syndicated profile] slacktivist_feed

Posted by Fred Clark

• Why do we call it “tug of war”? Shouldn’t it be “war of tug?”

Hasty googling doesn’t reveal much about the etymology of the name, except that the term probably referred to something else before it began to be applied to the game. Happily, though, I also found this — the classic Battle of the Network Stars episode in which the Incredible Hulk vanquished Spenser, Starbuck, Chachi and Billy Crystal:

Click here to view the embedded video.

Yes, that was a thing that happened.

• “Bottom line, without insurance and the subsidy I would simply die, because I could not afford my drugs and my body would reject my liver.”

• Net neutrality wasn’t a partisan issue, but now that President Barack Obama is firmly in favor of it, the Republican Party has come out against it. That’s just how they roll.

I’m not sure that this is a winning equation for the GOP:



… but, hey, if that’s how Republicans choose to identify themselves, I can’t stop them.

• Speaking of the pervasively political nature of “non-political” religion … John Fea points us to a post from the American Society of Church History blog that argues it is “theologically illiterate” to regard Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse as a “Christian crusader” and culture warrior because Sasse is actually a Lutheran committed to old-school Lutheran “two kingdoms” theology.

Not buying it. First because it’s theologically illiterate — particularly for church historians, for goodness’ sake — to pretend that Lutheran two-kingdom theology has ever been anything other than wholly, thoroughly political (see: Germany). And second because we would have to conclude that it is just a huge coincidence — or, rather, a whole series of huge coincidences — that just happens to make Sasse’s political agenda identical on every point to the culture warriors Paul Putz wants to distinguish him from. Oh, Sherlock, what do we say about coincidence?

• An undeniable fact of history, proven again and again, is that trying to spark a revolution by shooting a police officer doesn’t work. It never works. Alas, the kind of people who tend to think it could, or should, aren’t really much influenced by history. Or by reality.

• Libby Anne discusses the mind-bending paradox of “But What If Your Husband Tells You Not To Submit?” This was one of my favorite things growing up in a church that taught that women must “submit” to their husband’s spiritual authority. My mom agreed with the church about that. My dad did not. So, then, wasn’t it rebellious of my mom to disagree with my dad about that? I had too much fun asking that question and watching the response spin in ever-tighter little circles.

• Progressive Christian blogging, ca. 1805.



Unsolved: Dorabella Cipher

Nov. 17th, 2014 05:34 pm
[syndicated profile] wonders_and_marvels_feed

Posted by Matthew Gu

By Sam MacKenzie (Guest Contributor)

Dorabella LetterIn 1897, composer Edward Elgar sent an enciphered letter to his friend Miss Dora Penny, nicknamed Dorabella. The Dorabella Cipher may tell a tale of a secret affair between two unlikely lovers. It may be a casual letter to a friend who was important in the sender’s life. It may be gibberish. Regardless of what was said in the Dorabella Cipher, the contents have remained a mystery for over a century despite the interest shown by a countless number of cryptanalysts.

Edward Elgar was a famous composer, renowned for the famous graduation song Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, who dabbled in other hobbies as well, including cryptography. Elgar was already m arried to a younger woman named Caroline who was once his student, but he undoubtedly enjoyed the company of Miss Dora. So much so, that in his famous work The Enigma Variations (a series of short musical portraits), he dedicated a section to her named Dorabella that featured woodwinds to represent her laughter (Peterson, 2009).

Long before Edward was known as a world famous composer, he wrote a mysterious letter, which continues to baffle the world to this day. On July 14, 1887, the letter appeared on Miss Penny’s doorstep. Miss Penny published the enciphered letter in her memoirs of Elgar to ask for possible solutions because she never had the slightest idea what it meant (Sams, 1970).

Clearly this cipher does not carry the same importance as the Enigma Machine (which was utilized by the Nazis to generate their encryptions), nor does it offer the same reward as decoding the Beale Ciphers (where the decoder would have been rewarded with a hefty amount of gold). Despite the lack of material significance, the Dorabella Cipher is still a popular mystery.

Dorabella MessageWhat does it mean?

Attempts to solve the Dorabella Cipher have been met with varying levels of success. The cipher features three rows and 24 different symbols of squiggles, totaling 80 characters. Most of the characters resemble the letter E, which could have something to do with Edward Elgar’s initials, EE. In 1887, computers were not yet spitting out complicated encoding systems, and it is unlikely that Edward could have expected Miss Penny to decipher anything too complicated. Therefore, most historians agree that it was enciphered using a substitution method (Kile, 2012).

In this case, a substitution encoding method would mean that each squiggly symbol represents a different letter of the alphabet. Although there are 26 letters in the alphabet and 24 different characters in the cipher, Edward could have easily worked around using infrequent letters such as “Z”, “X”, and others. Cryptanalysts commonly use frequency analysis, which matches the most common squiggles in the cipher to the most common letters (A, E, T), as a method to decode substitution ciphers. This frequency analysis has shown that a substitution cipher is plausible for the Dorabella Cipher (Kile, 2012). This finding supports the hypothesis that Elgar probably could not have employed a more complicated enciphering method. Despite the usage of frequency analysis, the cipher still remains unsolved.

Some challenges that cryptanalysts have encountered while attempting to solve the Dorabella cipher include the lack of cipher text and the private language that seems to have existed between Miss Penny and Edward Elgar. Frequency analysis is helpful for solving substitution ciphers, but is much less effective when there is so little cipher text to analyze. With less cipher text, the difference in frequency between the popular and unpopular symbols is too small to provide meaningful information about the symbols.

Additionally, Tony Gaffney, a renowned cryptanalyst, believes that their mixture of inside jokes and slang makes decoding the Dorabella cipher exceedingly difficult (Pelling, 2012). Decoding this letter would be similar to trying to decipher a letter written in an unknown language. Cryptanalysts are not only required to decipher the letter into plain English, they must also make random guesses at the inside jokes the letter could contain.

The mystery of the Dorabella cipher is not who sent the enciphered letter, or why, or how. Instead, the mystery is what was said in the letter. Most historians agree there were no sexual relations between Miss Penny and Edgar, since he was happily married, but they were very close and remained life long friends. When Edward was later questioned about the contents of the cipher by Miss Penny he reportedly said, “I thought you, of all people, would have guessed it” (Peterson, 2009). Perhaps the contents of the enciphered letter would allow us to better understand the mysterious relationship existing between Edward and Dora.

It is unlikely that the cipher carries relevant mathematical aspects, as neither Miss Penny nor Edward Elgar were mathematicians who were skilled with ciphers. Therefore, this cipher carries more historical significance. Many musicians would love to see into the mind of the famous composer, but that is beginning to seem more and more unlikely.

Will the cipher ever be solved? Generally, ciphers that are decoded the quickest are the ones that are the most urgent or have the highest reward. In either of these cases, the cipher receives a large amount of effort and resources. On the other hand, the Dorabella Cipher has no reward and no urgency, but rather is considered a hobby for idealists who enjoy a good story. As a result, it is doubtful that this cipher will be decoded considering the resources already unsuccessfully applied to trying to decode it.. It seems the mystery will remain unsolved, an inside joke for Elgar alone.

This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Peterson, E. (2009, May 1). Unsolved Mysteries: The Dorabella Cipher [Web log]. Retrieved from: http://www.puzzlehead.org/2009/05/unsolved-mysteries-the-dorabella-cipher/

Kile, J. (2012, June 14). The Dorabella Cipher and a Possible Method for Deciphering [Web log]. Retrieved from: http://mysteriouswritings.com/the-dorabella-cipher-and-a-possible-method-for-deciphering/

Pelling, N. (2012). Dorabella Cipher [Web log]. Retrieved from: http://www.ciphermysteries.com/the-dorabella-cipher

Sams, E. (1970). Elgar’s Cipher Letter to Dorabella. The Musical Times, Vol. 111. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/956733

Image Sources:

Dorabella Cipher Image (photograph). (2011). Retrieved: October 30, 2014. From: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dorabella-cipher-image.gif

Cynicalview (photographer). (2011). Envelope (photograph). Retrieved: November 11, 2014. From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/castorgirl/5615283857/

[syndicated profile] wonders_and_marvels_feed

Posted by Jack Stubblefield

By Sarah Giordano (Guest Contributor)


Portrait de Napoléon Bonaparte en premier consul by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

For all his military genius, the one idea that Napoleon could not quite seem to grasp was the importance of cryptography. Most prominently, this failing was seen on the battleground of the Peninsular Wars in Iberia, where the French Empire and the British battled for dominance. Here, flurries of messages were passed amongst army units, often containing information about key military maneuvers or enemy tactics. British cryptanalysts frequently preyed upon French messages, capturing them to see what they could learn. To ensure the security of these messages, the use of strong codes and ciphers was critical. Unfortunately for the French Empire, Napoleon had to learn this lesson the hard way.

The glaring lapse in cryptography on the part of the French army was evident during the capture of one of their officers, General Franceschi, in the Iberian Peninsula. When captured, Franceschi was carrying a letter to Napoleon’s brother, the current King of Spain (Wellesley, 1837). One would think that a letter passing between allied rulers containing military information would be well protected by the strongest ciphers that the French army offered. However, it was not protected at all; with Franchesci’s capture, enemies of the French had instant access to the contents of Napoleon’s letter (Wellesley, 1837). The first lesson that the French needed learn about cryptography: use it.

From the Army of Portugal Code to the Great Paris Cipher

At this point Napoleon began to rethink his methods of security and tasked the French army with creating a large code. The one they created, called the Army of Portugal Code, was not simple; it used approximately 150 numbers, each of which represented either a letter or a word (Bertrand, Heyningen, n.d.). Unfortunately for the French, the British deciphered it in record time. In 1811, a man by the name of Major George Scovell sat down armed only with a beginner’s guide to cryptography and a few captured French messages (Urban, 2001B). Within two days, he had uncovered the current encryption system of the French, giving the advantage to the British and their allies once again.

Evidently, the Bonaparte brothers needed a huge cipher, riddled with dead ends, traps, and tricks in order to effectively confuse their enemies. Thus, at the end of 1811, the Great Paris Cipher, “Le Grande Chiffre de Paris”, was born from the minds of unknown French cryptographers.

The Great Paris Cipher was leaps ahead of the Army Code of Portugal. For instance, the cipher had few underlying patterns, only consisting of a table with words and letters followed by the number with which they were encoded (Urban, 2001 B). The table consisted of approximately 1400 numbers, which served to further increase the security (Urban, 2001 A). A cipher this large should have remained impenetrable for quite some time, because it was nearly impossible to figure out using the common decryption techniques of frequency analysis.

Essentially, frequency analysis, the fundamental decryption method of the time, consists of determining the number of times cipher text symbols appear so that one can determine which symbol corresponds to what “real”, also known as plaintext, letter. For example, if the number ‘4’ appears the most times in an encrypted letter, one might determine that the number 4 stands for the plaintext letter ‘e’, as e is the most common letter both in English and French (Urban, 2001 B). However, in the Great Paris Cipher a single letter would take on multiple numbers according to how frequently the letter was found in the language, a method which is known as homophonic substitution (Urban, 2001 A). Instantly, this renders frequency analysis useless because the frequency of one number in the cipher does not accurately represent the entire frequency of a letter in the plaintext.

To make it even more complicated, some numbers stood for nothing; they were simply included in the cipher text to make enemies even more confused. These “nulls”, as they were termed, were specifically inserted at the ends of words to thwart a common decryption technique of studying similar endings to cipher text words in search of linguistic patterns (Bertrand, Heyningen, n.d.).

Moreover, the Great Paris Cipher added another layer of complexity and variety by technically acting as both a code and a cipher (Bayart, V. &F., n.d.). This meant that a specific number could either be the encryption of a word or phrase (which would make it a code) or it could be the encryption of a syllable or a single letter (which would be described as a cipher). Enemy cryptanalysts would have difficulty discovering which number(s) corresponded to which words because words could be encrypted in many ways: with a number for each letter, for each syllable, for the entire word, or some combination thereof.

Indeed, “Le Grand Chiffre de Paris” was formidable in size and complexity, and had no noticeable underlying patterns. In truth, it seemed like all the security Napoleon needed.

Great Paris Cipher

Le Grand Chiffre, Cryptologia, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Breaking the Great Paris Cipher

Yet, merely a year after the birth of this cipher, it was broken by Major Scovell, the same man who had broken the Army Code of Portugal. In truth, the Great Paris Cipher found its flaw not in its structure but in its use. In essence, the French were simply too lazy and overconfident in the cipher’s security to use it properly. Instead of encrypting messages using the cipher, the French army would only encrypt part of a message in an effort to cut down on the time spent using the cipher (Bayart, V. & F., n.d.). They mistakenly thought that their cipher would be strong enough to keep the full meaning of their messages a secret. By leaving some words of their message in common French, they provided a cryptanalyst like Scovell with an invaluable foothold, or “crib”, into their cipher.

Essentially, Scovell could use the words in plain text to take an educated guess at what the message might be, leading him to deduce what some encrypted words meant (Urban, 2001 A). Moreover, if the French left a verb out in the open, Scovell could easily decrypt the words around it by analyzing its conjugation (Urban, 2001 B). Slowly as Scovell gathered more cipher text, the number of cribs he collected increased until finally the cipher was completely broken. With this broken cipher, the British gained a serious edge in the Peninsular Wars. Keeping their discovery a secret, they could now collect and decrypt messages containing critical information for the French, resulting in serious repercussions for Napoleon. Using the information gained from “Le Grand Chiffre”, the British beat the French in the final battle for control of Spain (Bertrand, Heyningen, n.d.)

Although heralded as a strategic genius, Napoleon never recognized the importance of cryptography. Even when the French finally developed a competent encryption technique, they made the mistake of trusting in it so much that it was not properly utilized. Had the French sent fewer messages and encrypted the entirety of their letters, “Le Grand Chiffre” could have been nearly unbreakable. The British may not have defeated the French, and Spain might not have been thrust into the hands of revolutionaries instead of remaining under the rule of the current king. Instead, Napoleon practically threw away his information and his advantages. It wasn’t all for naught, however; from the mistakes of the French Empire, the world learned exactly what not to do while passing secret messages.

This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Bayart, V. & F. Le Grand Chiffre de Paris (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://www.bibmath.net/crypto/index.php?action=affiche&quoi=ancienne/napoleon

Bertrand, C., & Heyningen, E. Secrets and Spies: The Great Paris Cipher. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/spies/ciphers/scovell/default.htm

Urban, Mark. (2001 A.) The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes: The Story of George Scovell. London: Faber and Faber.

Urban, M. (2001B, October 24). Wellington’s Lucky Break. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

Wellesley, A., & Gurwood, J. (1837). Dispatches of the Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington,  K.G.: During His Various Campaigns in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, the Low Countries, and France (pp. 498-499). John Murray, Albemarle Street.

A ‘Yankee abolitionist holiday’

Nov. 17th, 2014 03:06 pm
[syndicated profile] slacktivist_feed

Posted by Fred Clark

Via Erik Loomis, some intriguing American religious history from Serious Eats’ Robert Moss:

Sarah Josepha Hale’s campaign coincided with a resurgence of religious fervor in all parts of the country in the 1840s and 1850s, and the idea of an national day of Thanksgiving was championed in particular by the Presbyterian church. But, at the same time, a stronger, more divisive force was on the rise: the growing sectional debate over the institution of slavery.

For her part, Hale hoped a national Thanksgiving holiday would foster national unity and encourage compromise. But the same evangelical Protestant denominations who most strongly advocated for Thanksgiving were also among the most ardent abolitionists. As Diana Karter Appelbaum puts it in her book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History, more and more Southerners were beginning to view Thanksgiving as a “Yankee abolitionist holiday.”

I wasn’t aware of this history of the Thanksgiving holiday, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Thanksgiving, after all, is part of American culture, and so of course we should expect it to have been influenced by slavery and white supremacy because that’s how everything in American culture works. Particularly the religious bits.

Here’s more from Moss, following Karter Appelbaum:

Virginia was the hotbed of anti-Thanksgiving sentiment. In 1853, Governor Joseph Johnson declined to declare a day of Thanksgiving for his state, citing Thomas Jefferson’s firm doctrine of separating church and state. Johnson’s successor, the slave-owning fire-brand Henry A. Wise, was even more intransigent. In 1856, he received the same annual letter from Sarah Josepha Hale that every other governor did, encouraging him to declare a general day of Thanksgiving. Wise not only declined to make the proclamation, but fired back a testy refusal.

“This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving,” he declared, “has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.” By “other causes,” of course, he meant abolitionism.

Wise offers there a classic articulation of what is often described as an otherworldly, “a-political” form of evangelical faith. Christians, he said, should be “preaching singly Christ crucified” and not meddling in “politics.”

FreedomFromWantThis strain of white evangelicalism was (and is) certainly otherworldly, but despite Wise’s claims, it was not, and never has been, non-political. As Wise’s political condemnation of “Christian politics” reveals, his otherworldly religion was transparently political, through and through. It is a form of religion that cannot be understood apart from its political intent and its political agenda.

Keep in mind that Wise was a governor, acting in his capacity as governor, when he offered this lecture on the proper content of Sunday sermons.

And in that regard, Henry A. Wise is an excellent representative of otherworldly white evangelicalism. His nominally a-political religion was simply an expression of his religious defense of his status quo: slavery and white supremacy. It was thus no different from the supposedly a-political white evangelicalism of a century later preached by otherworldly, purportedly non-political white evangelicals during Jim Crow.

Re-read that last paragraph summarizing Wise’s rejection of “Christian politics” and then read this, from Carolyn Dupont’s discussion of “White Supremacy, Evangelicals, and Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer“:

If by June of 1964 Mississippi’s white Christians had not adequately disavowed racial integration, a final opportunity arose when Southern Baptists from across the country streamed to Atlantic City, NJ for their annual convention — just weeks before the three civil rights workers disappeared. Progressives at this meeting offered up a statement that condemned segregation, endorsed civil rights activity, and urged support of the Civil Rights Bill then before Congress. Yet Baptist leaders from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama substituted a much watered-down version that excised all such endorsements and offered only the rather innocuous recommendation that “Christians and churches [act] under the direction of the Holy Spirit and in the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Convention narrowly approved the eviscerated statement, relegating the progressive report to the trash heap. And even as Mississippi Baptists returned home to the summer’s escalating violence, they castigated the socially conscious arm of their denomination for its “liberalism” and its attention to the “distraction” of race relations, arguing that the “cause of Christianity is being undermined by leaders who are more interested in social reforms than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

It’s the exact same argument. It’s the very same appeal to the very same supposedly non-political gospel in defense of the very same politics of white supremacy. Wherever that status quo was threatened, this argument condemned “politics” and “social reform” as distractions from the otherworldly focus on “the gospel.”

That is the kind of non-political politics that otherworldly evangelicalism always produces because that is the reason this otherworldly religion was invented. Go back a century before Wise and you’ll find the same a-political otherworldly focus from George Whitefield, who managed to preach this “non-political” gospel while simultaneously helping to legalize slavery in the colony of Georgia.

White evangelicalism today remains otherworldly — still focused on individual salvation and the afterlife. Yet it is no longer even nominally non-political. Today, white evangelicalism tends to champion explicitly political activism.

The political activists of the religious right today like to imagine themselves as the heirs of the minority of evangelical abolitionist activists of the 19th century whose agenda so angered Gov. Wise. Yet their agenda isn’t anything like that of the Oberlin radicals or the Tappans or Beechers. Their agenda is much more in line with that of Whitfield and Wise and the Mississippi Baptists of the 1960s. The agenda of white evangelical political activists today is not very different from the agenda of the allegedly anti-political white evangelical activists of 1964 and 1856. The defiantly politicized evangelicalism of the early 21st century is simply the shape that same thing has had to take in new circumstances.

Henry A. Wise could pretend to be “non-political” because his politics were a defense of the status quo. The white evangelicals of the mid-20th century could likewise pretend their politics was “non-political” because it was, similarly, aligned with the status quo they sought to protect. But ever since the Civil Rights Movement, that status quo has been challenged and eroded. Protecting it today — or attempting to “restore” it — requires a different set of pretenses and a different set of claims about the relationship between faith and politics.

White evangelicals’ new context thus requires a new political language. But the political agenda hasn’t actually changed.

[syndicated profile] sociological_images_feed

Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

In 1897, sociologist Émile Durkheim published research arguing that suicide – something previously believed to be decidedly unsociological – could be understood as a social phenomenon. He pointed out that suicide rates are not evenly distributed in or across societies; that cultural or structural factors might influence individuals’ risk of suicide, regardless of their individual psychologies; and that those factors might explain the variation.

Recently another set of sociologists borrowed Durkheim’s approach, substituting serial killing for suicide. James DeFronzo and three of his colleagues asked whether cultural and structural variables might predict state variation in the rate of male serial killer activity. This, it turns out, varies quite widely, as DeFronzo et al. write:

[U]sing a method that assigns a male serial killer to the state where he perpetrated his largest number of homicides, from 1970 to 1992 California had a rate of 18.6 male serial killers per 10 million residents, whereas Florida had a rate of 10.3, Texas had a rate of 7, New York had a rate of 6.3, Illinois had a rate of 6.1, Ohio had a rate of 3.7, and Pennsylvania had a rate of 3.4.

To do the study, the authors drew on existing literature, positing seven factors that might increase the rate of serial killing in a state.

Their structural factors included population density (large, urban, dense cities allow for greater anonymity and offer more potential victims) and variables that increased individuals’ vulnerability (being divorced, living alone, and being unemployed).

For the cultural factors, the authors considered variables that might indicate a high tolerance for or presence of violence. They argue:

Norms prescribing or tolerant of violent behavior contribute to shaping the fantasies of the developing serial killer, help to objectify and dehumanize potential victims, and consequently provide a necessary link in converting sexually sadistic urges in the violent behavior.

As measures of this, they include the overall homicide rate in the state, whether the state is in the South (see the “culture of honor” thesis), and the use of capital punishment.

They figured that the structural variables might predict the states in which killers killed because they measured opportunity. Whereas the cultural variables might incite young serial killers, thus they’d be related to the states in which serial killers grew up.

Here are the results. All of the relationships are positive – as the rate of divorce goes up, for example, so does the rate of serial killing – and about half of the relationships are statistically significant.

Model 1 (the first column of numbers) shows the relationship between our independent variables and the state where serial killers committed their largest number of murders. Model 1 offers good evidence that social structural variables influence whether serial killers actually kill. Vulnerable individuals living in high density environments may enable these crimes.


Model 2 (the column on the far right) shows the relationship between the independent variables and where offenders were socialized as children. DeFronzo and his colleagues don’t theorize a relationship between their structural variables and the production of a young serial killer, so the significance of these relationships are a mystery. It might be, they argue, just an artifact of the fact that most serial killers killed in the same states in which they were raised.

One cultural variable was significant for this model: Southern region. Being exposed to violence as a child can trigger a genetic potential for violence that would otherwise remain unexpressed. Or, Southerners may simply grew up with greater tolerance for and approval of violence.

Like Durkheim, DeFronzo and his colleagues show us that even phenomenon we think are explained by other disciplines can benefit from sociological analysis. Thanks to their research, we now better understand the factors that increase the risk of being a victim of serial homicide. This is a great example of how we need all of the sciences to put together a complete picture of the world we live in.

Photo of John Wayne Gacy borrowed from The Guardian.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at http://thesocietypages.org/socimages)


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