The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Cryptographic Creativity

What I was struck most by throughout Ms. Dunin’s talk was the fact that she had such a vast amount of knowledge in such a wide array of categories. She is not only an expert code breaker, but a professional code maker. She talked about her experience in the gaming industry, her understanding of steganography, and her world travels to find different pieces of cryptographic artwork. Her work experience includes not only authoring books in the above categories, but also time spent stationed in California (to which I take a particular interest) in the US Air Force. Her website brags about her personal accomplishments including her ability to speak numerous languages – which probably was supplemented by her travels to every continent. On top of all of that, she is an official administrator on Wikipedia, with over 69,000 edits.

While perusing her credentials, I was astonished by the incredible breadth of her experience. How could one woman have time for all of these things? On top of all that, where did she find time to learn about cryptography. The more I thought about it, however, I realized that her cryptographic knowledge didn’t happen in spite of her educational life experience; rather the vast array of skills that she has acquired throughout her life is, more likely than not, directly correlated to her ability to decipher so adeptly.

We have talked in class numerous times about the skills that are most important in code breaking. Is it luck? Creativity? Logic? We also know from our reading that the most successful codebreaking happened when people from many different disciplines have come together to perform great feats of cryptanalysis with their combined skills. Elonka has a background in code making, a largely math based profession. She also is adept at linguistics, obvious from her ability to speak so many languages. She has had the opportunity to glean knowledge from every corner of the internet during her time at PhrekNIC and as a Wikipedia administrator. She is, undoubtedly, in the position to be the most qualified of cryptanalysts.

Elonka has accomplished incredible things during her career as a cryptanalyst. She described in class how she casually jumped into codebreaking at a conference, and then let it become a large part of her life. Is this surprising? No, rather it is inspiring. The study of cryptography is not limited. In its purest form, it is all inclusive.


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  1. kims46

    I also find this aspect of cryptography very interesting, and hearing of Elonka’s versatility in knowledge as well as constantly reading about the varied backgrounds of cryptanalysts further underlined it. I agree that it is not surprising – having with you a spectrum of experiences and perspectives is likely to be a great asset in trying to decipher a message. However, like many other subjects, it’s not often thought of that (perhaps) unorthodox outside information might be helpful or even necessary. This may be why we are caught off guard hearing about the chess players who helped in the Enigma effort. Furthermore, message senders often utilize other tools to ensure maximum security that may go beyond the efforts of encrypting, such as steganography – which we have read about in The Code Book. Perhaps it is because of these multiple layers of secrecy that backgrounds other than in math may also come in handy. We could also note that cryptography is used in a large range of settings – when Elonka discussed deciphering in a hackathon, I realized I had not considered just how useful cryptography may be besides in the most obvious situations. Perhaps I was just being naive, but I hadn’t considered that these sorts of competitions could be relevant in the something like a hackathon before she came in to speak with us. So in the same way that many different backgrounds may be useful in cryptography, cryptography is also useful in many different areas.

  2. Derek

    I love this essay, Colleen. You’ve hit on something fundamental about the nature of creativity and logic and the value of having a wide variety of interests. Charles Babbage was a polymath, too, which likely made him a better cryptographer. It’s not something we encourage in schooling these days. Instead, we ask students to specialize, almost as soon as they step onto a college campus.

  3. Steve Lux

    I worked for and with Elonka for about 6 years at Simutronics (she hired me) and I worked on the GemStone product line. The vast majority of the people working with us were quite bright and very creative. After a time, one thing I noticed was that some people were very good with code and some people were very good at describing a room to set a scene and to provide ambiance which is so important in a text-based gaming environment. Most people however generally kinda stank at whatever they didn’t excel in. Elonka was one of the very few who was outstanding at both.

    Additionally, I remember a particular project I coded which was designed to dynamically track character fame, level and experience along the lines of race and profession. The code provided an output to the players who like to track such things, because we all know how competitive we like to be and people often like to know how they compare to others. When we first acquired 3-D arrays I soon realized this would be the perfect tool, from what was available for us, to track, store and retrieve this data. At the time it seemed to me that all the senior coders except Elonka kind of poo-pooed the idea as impossible. She tried to find someone who had experience dynamically sorting 3-D arrays, but in the end I had to figure out by myself how to do what I later learned was called bubble sorting. Later I made some tools for manually modifying 3-D arrays, modifying, inserting or removing data from cells and re-ordering the data afterwards.

    Anyhow, with her positive encouragement I was able to accomplish some of my best work. Before I left I was able to develop and implement dynamic load shedding code which helped to stabilize our systems and reduce noticeable latency for our customers. The point is that with her product leadership she fostered a can-do environment that enabled myself and others to excel. I’m supposing she will always be one of the all-around most intelligent people I have met in my life.

    As always, I wish her well.

    (Game Master Romulus)

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