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Photo: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.
Merryl Goldberg, Professor of Music, California State University San Marcos, and part-time spy
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Do you like true spy stories? Here’s one about a mild-mannered saxophonist, now a music professor, who felt a call to help Jewish musicians in 1980s Russia.

Lily May Newman has the story at Wired.

“In 1985, saxophonist Merryl Goldberg found herself on a plane to Moscow with three fellow musicians from the Boston Klezmer Conservatory Band. She had carefully packed sheet music, reeds, and other woodwind supplies, along with a soprano saxophone, to bring into the USSR. But one of her spiral-bound notebooks, lined with staves for hand-notating music, contained hidden information.

“Using a code she had developed herself, Goldberg had obscured names, addresses, and other details the group would need for their trip in handwritten compositions that looked, to an untrained eye, like the real melodies she’d written on other pages of the book. Goldberg and her colleagues didn’t want to give Soviet officials details of who they planned to see and what they planned to do on their trip. They were going to meet the Phantom Orchestra.

“The group was a dissident ensemble that Goldberg describes as an amalgamation of Jewish refuseniks (Jews who were barred from emigrating out of the USSR), Christian activists, and Helsinki monitors—watchdogs who tracked Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Americans’ trip was funded and coordinated by the nonprofit Action for Soviet Jewry (now Action for Post-Soviet Jewry), which works on humanitarian relief in the former Soviet Union and was focused on helping Soviet Jews emigrate to Israel and the United States. 

“The trip was a rare and special opportunity for American and Soviet players to meet in the USSR and make music together. It was also an opportunity for the American musicians to smuggle information about aid efforts and plans to the Phantom Orchestra, and for the ensemble to send updates out, including details about individuals looking to escape the Soviet Union.

“Goldberg and her colleagues, all of whom are Jewish, traveled to Moscow separately in two pairs to make it less likely that they would arouse suspicion as a group. They had received training on how to react to questioning and been told to expect surveillance, even run-ins with Soviet officials, throughout their trip. But first Goldberg needed to get her notebook past border control. 

” ‘When we arrived, we were immediately pulled aside, and they went through everything in our luggage, to the point of unwrapping Tampax. It was crazy,’ says Goldberg, who [presented] about the experience and her musical code at the RSA security conference in San Francisco [in June]. ‘With my music, they opened it up and there were some real tunes in there. If you’re not a musician, you wouldn’t know what’s what. They went page by page through everything—and then they handed it back.’ …

“Musical note names span the letters A to G, so they don’t provide a full alphabet of options on their own. To create the code, Goldberg assigned letters of the alphabet to notes in the chromatic scale, a 12-tone scale that includes semi-tones (sharps and flats) to expand the possibilities. In some examples, Goldberg wrote only in one musical range, known as treble clef. In others, she expanded the register to be able to encode more letters and added a bass clef to extend the range of the musical scale. These details and variations also added verisimilitude to her encoded music.  For numbers, Goldberg would simply write them between the staves, where sometimes you might see chord symbols. …

“While someone could technically have played the code as music, it would have sounded less like a tune and more like a cat walking across piano keys.

“ ‘I picked a note to start, and then I created the alphabet from there. Once you know it, it ends up being pretty easy to write things. I taught my friends on the trip the code, too,’ Goldberg says. ‘We used it in order to take in people’s addresses and other information we would need to find them. And we coded things while we were there so we would be able to take out some information about people and their efforts to emigrate, as well as details we hoped could help other people ask to leave.’

“The US musicians got their bearings in Moscow before heading to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There and on their next stop in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, they successfully met members of the Phantom Orchestra, many of whom spoke some English. …

“During eight days of travel, the musicians were tailed constantly by Soviet agents and were repeatedly stopped for questioning. Goldberg says that members of the Phantom Orchestra, all of whom faced similar treatment in their daily lives, gave her and her colleagues advice and encouragement. When the Americans would express concerns that their presence was endangering the activists, Goldberg says the Phantom Orchestra members were resolute about the importance of spending time together. She adds, though, that some of the activists were later arrested and even beaten, because of the interactions.

“ ‘On the second night, we were playing together and the KGB came in and everything got shut down. The electricity was turned off; it was a scary situation,’ Goldberg says. ‘And yet, when we’re playing music no one can take away that sense of freedom and empowerment. Playing together and communicating with people through music is like nothing else. I was amazed by the strength it brought the people there. Music can be very comforting, but it also conveys a sense of feeling powerful.’ “

More at Wired, here. No firewall.

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Did you ever have a secret language?

I spoke a lot of Goose Latin when I was about 10. (How-fow do-foo you-foo spee-feak goo-foose La-fa-ti-fin? Tha-fat i-fis my-fi se-fee-cre-fet.) I don’t think my mother had much trouble cracking the code.

I have always been interested in how people disguise what they are really thinking when they speak, and I once made a video about having an extremely polite tea with someone I didn’t like, using a voiceover for my true thoughts.

A more serious reason for speaking in code was described in a Boston Globe article by Joshua J. Friedman last month.

“To communicate while living under an authoritarian regime requires a special sort of linguistic creativity. As a new paper by Nassima Neggaz in the journal Language, Discourse & Society reports, one solution that Syrians have found is to speak in codes. …

“Neggaz interviewed approximately 20 members of several close groups of relatives and university friends in Homs, Hama, and Damascus about the codes they used between 1980 and 2011. She found that members of one group, to speak of someone who was hiding from the regime, would say that the person was ‘sick,’ mardan. Members of another group would say that he was ‘studying’ (‘am yadruss) or that he was ‘taking exams’ (‘andu fhussat).

“To describe someone who was being detained or who was in jail, it was common to say that this person was ‘at his aunt’s house’ (huwa fi bayt khaltu). To suggest that a person was an informer, some speakers would say khattu heluw: ‘His handwriting is beautiful.’ ” More here.

Image: Christoph Niemann for Time, content.time.co

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The Puritan thinker Roger Williams got fed up with the rigid Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and went off to found the state of Rhode Island and advocate for freedom of religion.

Recently Lucas Mason-Brown, a Brown University math major, worked with a small group of undergraduates to crack the shorthand code Williams used while making notes.

According to Martine Powers in today’s Boston Globe, here, translation of the notes was an achievement that had resisted scholars for centuries. No major insights about Roger Williams were revealed, but some were confirmed.

For example, the notes show that Williams was against baptizing Indian children — a new example of how adamantly he opposed pressure to convince anyone of any religious belief.

In an earlier AP article in the Herald Online, Erika Niedowski writes, “College history professor emeritus J. Stanley Lemons and others at Brown started trying to unravel the so-called ‘Mystery Book’ a few years ago. But the most intense work began this year after the university opened up the challenge to undergraduates, several of whom launched an independent project.

” ‘No one had ever looked at it systematically like this in generations,’ Widmer said. ‘I think people probably looked at it and shrugged.’

“Senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, who has done the majority of the decoding, said his first instinct was to develop a statistical tool. The 21-year-old from Belmont, Mass., used frequency analysis, which looks at the frequency of letters or groups of letters in a text, but initially didn’t get far.

“He picked up critical clues after learning Williams had been trained in shorthand as a court stenographer in London, and built his own proprietary shorthand off an existing system. Mason-Brown refined his analysis and came up with a rough key.” Read more.

AP Photograph
The preface page of the Mystery Book from Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library. Lucas Mason-Brown, a senior mathematics major, helped crack a mysterious shorthand code developed and used by religious dissident Roger Williams in the 17th century. The handwritten code surrounds the printed text on the preface page.

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