Spy vs Spy Week

Know All The Codes!

Codes, Ciphers & Other Cryptic & Clandestine Communication by Fred B. Wrixon is a spectacularly thorough examination of how people communicate in secret. Its subtitle, “making and breaking secret messages from hieroglyphs to the internet,” is a very succinct description of a very verbose and wide-ranging book. To a layperson, Mr. Wrixon’s book could easily apppear to be a textbook from a military academy. It covers everything you’d ever want or need to know about codes and ciphers, in both theory and practice. But there is very few dry spots in his presentation. He smartly weaves history and technical theory together, using specific past examples of secret codes (both successful and not) to illustrate each of his discussions of specific code types.

My father gave me my 1998 edition. He’d discovered the book while doing research for a historical novel about spies in the First World War. (No, he’s not a famous author you’d know.) He thought I’d be as fascinated with it as he was. He was right, but the level of detail is sometimes excessive, and at 700+ pages there is a lot of material here. So, instead of trying to read it cover-to-cover, I often pick up the book and open it at random. Whether he’s discussing how to electronically thwart a phone tap, manufacture a microdot, or include secret meanings in a seemingly innocent letter to a prison convict, Mr. Wrixon manages to be interesting and easy to understand while never talking down to the reader. He also explores the people who’ve broken these codes (or in some cases, didn’t).

Do you know the defined difference between a code, a cipher, and a clandestine message? Thanks to Mr. Wrixon, I do. A code hides words, a cipher hides individual letters (or digits) and clandestine communication hides the existence of the message. If we agree to refer to a secret agent named Bruno as “our German Shepard,” that a code. If we use the alphabetical position of the letters of his name to refer to him as “0218211415,” that’s a cipher. If we tattoo his name to somebody’s scalp and then let their hair grow back to hide it, that’s a clandestine message. If we hide the numeric cipher for “German Shepard” within the code string of a JPEG image, we’re doing all three.

A good deal of this book deals with “official” governmental espionage, but the book examines enough other situations to make the reader aware that secret messages are all over the place, from poker cheats to baseball managers telling a batter to steal second. If you find thinking about that sort of stuff fun, this book will give you lots of fun stuff to think about.

— 052411061724111012162713100901052722111128

Codes, Ciphers and Other Cryptic and Clandestine Communication on Amazon.com

  • The Professor

    The crypto-stuff is interesting, but I've never been able to play around with it because I really suck at those kind of puzzles. Thanks for sharing though. That looks to be a good reference book on the subject.

  • aastrovan


  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    Shouldn't "090105" be "032006" at the end?

    • What's "TCQ?"

      • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

        ++ 17240909262706182512150619170417121929

        • I got "Gappy Rfyliregtgle!" out of that. Should I just tell you the code sequence?

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            No I got it, mine is not the same exactly as yours, see it starts with two pluses before the cipher instead of the long dash like yours, that's significant. Maybe it would have been better for me to write more than a single sentence, but the day I wrote it I thought it would be enough. I'll write a longer bit later today if I get the chance. Anyway, getting LO— CNN naively tripped me up the first time, when you wrote the reply I got it. It was a nice puzzle. Go and edit your other reply though, so other people can enjoy the puzzle.

          • But I don't love CNN.

          • The long dash was not intended to be part of the code…oh noes, what have I done?!

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Whoops, sorry I had one number off by one:

            1724090926270618251215 07 19170417121929

            I give-up editing, I simply can't seem to get two pluses at the front this time.

          • What's the point of the two plusses?

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            They mean like your scheme but the other way around (a long dash is looks a minus, about as long on the screen as two pluses on my screen). I know it's all pretty stupid, but I needed to think of something like yours to get a quick reply out and I had your alphabets next to each other written on a scrap of paper handy anyway 🙂

            You'll get it, You almost do, it's not a G BTW. I gave a hint when I said I thought about writing more sentences but at the particular time I wrote that I had good reason to think you would not need more. Here's another based on the current day:

            plusplus 17240909262721252219062710080919222429

            to you, too.

          • I didn't expect anybody to actually take the initiative to figure it out, or even see if it was a real code, so I must say…


          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Well I'm stumped for now, I'll come back to it when I get a chance. Good work on solving the two I made.

          • the "+4" is the key.

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq


          • MAN, you're good. Even the dummy zeros in the second word didn't throw you. Very nicely done.

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Thanks, the zero padding is what threw me off yesterday in fact, somehow when I looked at it again today I noticed that all those zeros were in places that did not matter once I broke up the second word by three digits.

          • Just for the record, I didn't put the zeros in there on purpose. I cut and pasted out of Excel and did something funky in the process.

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            The fact that you have a spread sheet for your own cipher makes you awesome, me I am a nerd that did stuff like this:

            $ for i in `jot 26`; do { echo 'ibase=10;obase=16;'; echo 009014014029 | sed 's/…/(24 – & + '"$i"' + 25) % 26 + 65; /g'; } | bc | xxd -r -ps; echo; done | less

        • Hint: the cipher for letters shifts one position each word (that is each time you hit a punctuation symbol), but the cipher codes for the punctuation symbols themselves never change.

  • The Professor


    • OA5599

      [youtube 6uPsC4ittAg&feature=related http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uPsC4ittAg&feature=related youtube]

      • The Professor

        Well, I hadn't heard that version before. They need the girls, though. I figured that someone here had watched The Jetsons.

        • OA5599


          MATTHEW SWEET – Scooby Doo, WHere are You?
          SUBLIME – Hong Kong Phooey
          BUTTHOLE SURFERS – Underdog
          RAMONES – Spider-Man
          WAX – Happy Happy Joy Joy (from Ren & Stimpy)
          FRENNTE! – Open Your Heart & Let the Sun Shine In (from the Flinstones)
          THE MURMURES – H.R. Pufnstuf
          FACE TO FCE – Popeye The Sailor Man
          COLLECTIVE SOUL – The Bugloos
          TOADIES – Goolie Get Together (from the Groovie Goolies)
          MARY LOU LORD w/ SEMISONIC – Sugar Sugar (from the Archies)
          TRIPPY DAISY – Frends/Sigmund & The Seamonsters
          SPONGE – Go Speed Racer Go
          Helmet – Gigantor
          LIZ PHAIR & MATERIAL ISSUE – The Tra La La Song (one Banana, Two Banana) – (from the Banana Splits)
          JULIANA HATFIELD & TANYA DONELLY – Josie & The Pussycats
          REVERERND HORTON HEAT – Johnny Quest / Stop That Pigeon
          VIOLENT FEMMES – Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah (means I love you) (from the Jetsons)

        • I don't know whether it'll make you feel better or worse to learn that my first (and only) thought was of The Jetsons.

          [youtube suafkk2vWNI http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suafkk2vWNI youtube]

          • The Professor

            Yes, that does make me feel better. I don't quite know what to think of that list of bands covering cartoon songs. And, The Butthole Surfers?

          • OA5599

            Certainly I recognized Elroy's secret code right off the bat. And you do realize that's Jetsons footage in the Violent Femmes cover video, right?

            Or were you too distracted by the no-longer-jailbait Drew Barrymore? This came out the same year she gave Letterman his favorite birthday present.

            [youtube 1LYV9AZNlFU http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LYV9AZNlFU youtube]

          • The Professor

            Sorry, I wasn't trying to demean your cartoon knowledge (knowledge of cartoons?), I was just somewhat taken aback by the Violent Femmes cover vid and band list. I mean, I had no idea, and it just made me feel old. I didn't even realize that it was Barrymore in it until just now when you told me. Sigh, old, old, old.

            That episode with Drew Barrymore was one of the few times that I was watching Letterman when she did that. I was pissed because she didn't turn around.