How to be an illustrator

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What you’ll need: art skillz, unique style

Songlist: Adele’s Painting Pictures, For the Kids by Waylon Jennings

Further reading: Anything illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg or Graeme Base

A scene from Graeme Base’s “11th Hour”

3 things: I overestimated the amount of time and interest I would have in writing while in Europe and way overestimated the amount of wifi that would be available in small Bavarian towns. Thus, I was not able to update this blog as a travelogue as often as I wanted over the last few weeks. The second thing is that when I got back from Germany last Tuesday night I was unexpectedly exhausted for the next several days. It felt like something more than jet lag–motivation lag, let’s call it. And so last week became the first week in a year and a half that I didn’t update this blog.

The last thing is that it’s my birthday this coming Sunday. Thus, it seems even more important than usual that I come up with a topic that’s really me (and, after my first week of absenteeism, I need to come back with a bang!). Everything that I truly love in my current life–flamenco dancing, novel writing, dogs–was already covered. But birthdays are a celebration not just of who we are but how we’ve become ourselves. And I can think of no larger influence on my childhood imagination than my favorite illustrated books.

It’s a relatively short time in our lives that illustrated books have their greatest appeal–say, ages 5-8 or so–when we seek a wonderful story accompanied by beautiful and interesting images. And yet these books live with us forever.

Another German lion

I worked as a literacy tutor two years ago for kindergartners through third graders, and the best part of the job was reading my favorite childhood books with my students and rediscovering them through my students’ eyes. One of the kids–a second-language learner from El Salvador–got really into Graeme Base’s mystery book The 11th Hour and together we found the clues and decrypted the codes on each page (I LOVE codes).

The lion dream I had two weeks ago stayed with me all through my trip. As I was falling asleep during my last night in Germany I suddenly had an epiphany: there’s a children’s story lurking somewhere in my brain. The main character is a Bavarian lion named Maximilian, and he at some point travels through the Black Forest and medieval castles (while driving through the Black Forest, my friend and I agreed we understood Hansel and Gretel’s predicament more clearly–that landscape is brimming with creepy fairy tales). That’s as far as I’ve gotten, though. All I know is that it will be beautiful and a little dark–just the kind of thing that will stay in one’s imagination for a lifetime.

The future of physics

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So, if you’re like me and you watched Brian Greene’s TED talk on string theory, you probably wonder how experiments on little strings vibrating in curled-up dimensions will affect our daily lives. In fact, there are plenty of ways, detailed in this list of how physics will change the future.

The first time I heard about the useful application of quantum mechanics was in the field of cryptography. As we store more and more of our personal information online, it’s that much more important for this data to remain well-encrypted. The race between code makers and code breakers has been close through the ages, but the cryptographers may finally win with the help of photons. Once quantum key distribution becomes the norm, it will be impossible for hackers to get into a system without announcing their presence, thereby defeating their purpose.

Quantum dots latched on to cancer cells

Cancer cells might not be able to go undetected anymore, either. Quantum “dots,” tiny semiconductor crystals, glow when exposed to ultraviolet radiation and, when coated with the right substance, latch on to cancer cells. Doctors can then pinpoint exactly which cells to target with treatment while leaving the rest of the healthy cells alone.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, scientists are using quantum physics to replicate turbulence in the lab so that someday we may be able to predict the chaotic swirls in gas and liquids. Flights will become smoother and weather reports more reliable.

But then again, if you want to just skip the security lines altogether you can always invest in transportation research. Scientists have been able to scan molecules and reconstruct them elsewhere…but don’t recycle your 3 oz liquid bottles yet: these aren’t exact copies of the molecules, they are twins. In the process of teleportation the original is destroyed. Sound like a good plot line? It’s already been done; beautifully, in my opinion, in 2006’s The Prestige (it’s a great movie so if you don’t want the ending ruined don’t watch the following clip):

The Dan Brown code


Dan Brown has plenty of enemies.  From plagiarism to historical inaccuracy to terrible sentence structure, there are any number of reasons to be dismayed.  Personally, I was affronted by his assumption that he is not only more clever than all of his readers, but also more than his characters.

The Da Vinci Code, unsurprisingly, is full of what Dan Brown considers codes.  Around page 394, we readers see a message written in one of these so-called codes.  In fact, the message is written a somewhat stylized script, in English, printed backwards. Immediately, I thought, “Oh, I see, it’s backwards.  This will be as obvious to the protagonists as it is to me, a lay reader.”  However, our three code-breaking heroes, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, French National Police cryptographer Sophie Neveu, and crazy old man Leigh Teabing pronounce it gibberish!  illegible!  mind-boggling! Luckily, Sophie comes through in a pinch: she tells the other two that her grandfather taught her this language (ie, English) when she was young, and she retains fluency in it.   She holds it up to the light to see the message through the other side:

From The Da Vinci Code: a hidden message in plain view

When Brown uses real codes in order to lend authenticity to his brand of historical fiction, he fares no better.  Jim Sanborn, creator of the sculpture Kryptos, which stands outside of CIA headquarters, said, “I don’t want my work manipulated in such a way that its meaning is somehow transformed.”  Brown had appropriated the code that Sanborn implanted within the sculpture to support his own theory of Mary Magadelene as axis mundi in the Christian faith.

It must be spelling out...Mary Magdalene!

Who does Dan Brown think he is, to get away with any of this?  Luckily, The New Yorker, has an answer to that.

The clues lie within the name itself. Brown is a color. What colors combine to make brown? Red, blue, and yellow—the primary colors. Brown is the color of the world, so we can assume Dan Brown is an international organization.

But is Dan Brown right about any of the conspiracies he’s created and fueled?  If only we could go straight to the historical source…

DIY: Go break some codes

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Cryptogram from Minneapolis’s Star Tribune.  Unlike cryptoquips, cryptograms are unfunny.

Simon Singh’s Cipher Challenge.  Once you get the hang of the cryptograms, Stage 1 is fairly simple.

If you don’t want to use your head at all, try the CIA’s code breaking game.

Why shouldn’t you work for the NSA?

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Matt Damon explains:

How to be a codebreaker


A Vigenère square

What you’ll need: A mind for mathematic patterns, and either a paper and pen or a fully functioning quantum computer (depending on what century you’re working in)

Songlist: A Badly Broken Code by Dessa, Box Full of Letters by Wilco

Further Reading: Decoded by Jay-Z

Ten years ago, while waiting for my plane at Heathrow Airport, I picked up a book called “The Code Book” by Simon Singh.  Now, I’m pretty good at solving the daily cryptoquip in my local paper*, so it was only logical to assume I’d make a good professional codebreaker.

I read the first chapter during my London to Minneapolis flight, a fascinating account of how Mary Queen of Scots was executed for treason based on the coded messages she sent from her prison cell.  Before diving into the next chapter, I flipped to the back of the book.  There, Singh had outlined the guidelines to a “cipher challenge,” a contest for which he would award £10,000 to the first person who cracked all ten codes Singh had created specially for this book.

Immediately, I took out a notebook and pen.  Stage 1: Simple Monoalphabetic Substitution Cipher.  Easy.  This was the kind of code I solved every day, the code employed by the cryptoquip, where one letter stands for another.  After scanning the page for a moment, I noticed the frequency of the letters JPX together and decided this must be THE; therefore J=T, P=H, and X=E.  It didn’t take too long to find other obvious clues, and before we’d crossed the Atlantic, I had the whole code solved, the keyword written down.  Naturally, I was pretty impressed with myself.  Here I was, a fourteen-year-old girl, already one-tenth of the way to £10,000, and I’d used no advanced technology.  I fell asleep, sure I would soon be a famous cryptanalyst.

At home, I began work on Stage 2: Caesar Shift Cipher.  Also fairly easy, because in this type of code you transpose the alphabet, then transpose it again, only shifted.  After trying out a few methods, I soon realized that the message had originally been written in Latin.  Oh, I get it: Caesar.  With this knowledge in hand, I completed Stage 2 with ease.  I went on to complete Stage 4: Vigenère Cipher, once known as le chiffre indéchiffrable, or the indecipherable cipher.  It was certainly more difficult, as it required a frequency analysis chart, the letters were not grouped into words, and it was in French.  Thus, once I solved the Vigenère, my pride was through the roof.  Unfortunately, Stage 4 was the last one that listed what type of code it was.  Stage 5 was just a bunch of numbers.  Stage 8 looked like this:

Simon Singh's Enigma encryption

After feeble attempts on some of these stages, I gave up.  I would not be a famous teenaged codebreaker after all.  I checked on the progress of the cipher challenge a few months later, and saw that all ten stages had, in fact, been solved.  The team that solved it, though, was a group of Swedish computer programmers/juggling enthusiasts who had a clear advantage over me (who knew that juggling is useful for code breaking?!)  Feeling a little better about my failure, I read Simon Singh’s description of the codes he’d created:

Stage 10 was intended to be the toughest public challenge cipher yet devised. Hence, I hoped that its cracking would help test the level of current codebreaking and perhaps stretch and encourage the development of algorithms.

Oh.  Oh, I see.  I failed because there was no possibility of success–I did not have a strong enough computer to contend with Singh’s code (he notes that he consulted with an encryption expert working for Microsoft for stages 9 and 10).  I still don’t and may never have the computer programming know-how to follow this dream, but man, am I good at those cryptoquips.

*Today’s cryptoquip solution: Whenever Obama’s vice president waits for the perfect moment to act, is he Biden his time?