The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Podcast Building: Substance and Style


In the Zodiac Killer episode from the One Time Pod, the podcast creator kept her audience engaged both through stylistic aspects and an interesting topic. I particularly enjoyed the use of ominous background music that changed as the speaker told the story to build the mood—it was also just the perfect sound level so as not to be distracting. Also, the topic of the Zodiac Killer was a great choice because it is a story that is still very prevalent in pop culture today, and I liked how the creator included hints of this, for example when she mentioned Ted Cruz at the end of her episode. The subject matter allowed for a more in dept description of the Zodiac Ciphers, because the audience was likely paying attention anyway because of the popularity of the topic. Based on what I liked about this podcast, I definitely am going to put a lot of work into picking the subject matter for my episode—as a more interesting topic will make it easier to spend time talking about technical aspects of cryptography without losing audience interest. Also, it made me realize the power of background noise in building the mood of an episode.

J'accuse You of Creating a Good Podcast

The podcast on the Panizzardi Telegram caught my attention as I had learned about the Dreyfus Affair in high school and was interested in the topic. Prior to listening to the podcast, I was unaware of the telegram and the role encryption had in the case.

I enjoyed the beginning of the podcast, as the producer used second-person narrative to hook listeners into the situation at hand. This introduction enticed me to keep listening to the podcast, wondering what would happen next.

Throughout the podcast, the producer did a fantastic job incorporating background music. I liked how the music fit with the tone and mood of each part of the story. The music was not loud enough to be distracting, yet audible enough so there wasn't just radio silence behind his voice. I also like how he added in sound effects, such as a crowd of people yelling when discussing protests at the trial. These additions helped liven up the podcast and keep it from being dull, and I will definitely be using music and sounds in my podcast as well.

I disliked the section in the middle of the podcast where the elements of the Panizzardi Telegram were explained. In the producer's defense, he most likely had to break down how the cipher worked to meet the criteria for the assignment, but the dry explanations went on for a little too long and seemed out of place between the exciting narrative of the Dreyfus affair. Perhaps he could have shortened this section and/or somehow incorporated it with the story, such as adding in examples from the Telegram when describing the encryption style.

I also thought the podcaster's voice was a little monotonous and quiet and could have been more exciting, but maybe that's just his voice and something he can't change.

All in all, I enjoyed listening to the podcast and definitely learned something new. I would like to make my future podcast with a narrative, story-like style as well. I will also try to make my voice more varied, but that is probably easier said than done.

Ted Cr- I Mean, The Zodiac Killer

The podcast on the Zodiac Killer was well made and well produced.  From a technical standpoint, the intonation, projection, and fluency of the speaker made it very enjoyable to listen to the podcast. Often times, even when simply reading from a script, people can falter, trip over words and phrases, and stutter, all of which detract from the listening experience of the podcast. In addition, these kinds of mistakes also decrease the ethos of the speaker, making them seem unprepared or nervous. These issues, however, were not present in the Zodiac Killer podcast. as the speaker delivered her message with clear intonation and projection and few, if any, stutters or mistakes. In addition her speaking style, the incorporation of background music made the podcast that much more enjoyable, as rather than it simply being one person droning on about a subject matter, the background music helps to supplant the voice of the speaker. Altogether, I hope to incorporate these two aspects of this particular podcast into my own, as they seemed to help enhance the efficacy of the podcast and overall make it more engaging.

Beyond merely technical details, the content of this podcast also piqued my interest. Having seen many documentaries and movies about serial killers - even the ones about the titular killer - it was interesting to learn even more about one of the most notorious killers in American history. It was even more fascinating to learn about the killer's extensive use of cryptography in hiding his killings and communicating with the police and those who would have liked to have stopped him. Altogether, the communication of relevant information in an easy-to-listen-to manner made this podcast interesting and enjoyable, as well as giving me ideas on how to create my own.

The Zodiac- Killer Podcast!

The Zodiac Killer episode produced by an old cryptography Vanderbilt student was surprisingly entertaining, and well made. Not that I was expecting it to be sub-par, I was just impressed with the podcast's high quality. There were a few aspects in particular that I really enjoyed, and would like to incorporate into my podcast. The background music was extremely useful and made everything less awkward. There were also additional audio clips other than those of the speaker, breaking up the podcast. These clips made the podcast more interesting and easy to follow. I liked how the writer used her friend to play the voice of the Zodiac killer too. I am extremely nervous about the idea of listening to my own voice for several minutes, so I will definitely be incorporating my friends' voices in my podcast. 

I really enjoyed the content of the podcast as well. To be honest I had never really known the true story of the Zodiac Killer, so this was very interesting. I really enjoyed her telling of the story. It was extremely detailed but not in an excessive way. I found the reasoning behind his name to be quite interesting. There was, surprisingly, not much that went into it.


Zodiac Codes, Podcast Time!

For this assignment, I listened to “A Killer on the Loose: The Zodiac Ciphers,” a podcast by a Vanderbilt student about the story of the Zodiac killer and the cryptography involved in his crimes. This story first explained the Zodiac killer’s crimes and murders, then delved into the story of how he contacted the press with ciphers that supposedly contained his identity. The podcast explained what kind of ciphers these were, how they were cracked, what information was uncovered, and what is still unknown. 

What I found most interesting about this episode was purely the topic of discussion and the story. I think the creator of this podcast did an amazing job of picking an intriguing topic through which to educate people about cryptography. Cryptography itself may not be so interesting, but the story of a serial killer using obscure symbols and concealing his identity is enticing.

I think that the producer of this podcast made it interesting by matching the presentation of the information with the information being presented. In other words, she was telling the story of a serial killer, and she matched this by presenting the information in an eerie way. She used spooky cliffhangers, used gunshot sound effects, and had an ominous music playing in the background the whole time. This drew the listener in emotionally to the story.

Admittedly, this producer could have done a better job of making the technical aspects accessible. Someone with no cryptography experience would not come away from this podcast with an understanding of what a transposition cipher is or what a Caesar cipher is. Still, I think the producers did a good job of interjecting cryptography knowledge as an important part of the story, which held the listener's attention. 

I think it would be really interesting for me to do a podcast on how cryptography is portrayed in movies. There is such a grand spectrum of how accurate or inaccurate code-breaking is in the movies, and I think it would be interesting to investigate why some movies fudge the details of cryptography more than others. Technically, I also think this would be interesting from a production standpoint as I could intereject the podcast with dialogue from the movies. 

Podcast Immersion

Vox encoding and speech compression is a common piece of technology that most people are completely unaware of. The podcast 99% invisible tells the entire story, from its inception in the form of a show act presented at a fair, to an integral part of World War II cryptography. The podcast medium plays well to this, as the narrator is able to tell a coherent story about this technology. What makes it interesting, is the examples that the studio is able to come up with. Imitating the encrypted talks between F.D.R. and Churchill while explaining each individual step plays well towards both providing a captivating story which places the listener into the middle of World War II, and also towards explaining technology that would otherwise require a diagram or a visual aid. A particular mark of the quality of the podcast is that since the subject matter deals with a recent time period, 99% are able to interview living people which were involved in the events, and sometimes they even were able to obtain recordings. However when they were unable to do so, they often supplemented with reenactments produced by the studio. This is sometimes difficult to distinguish where the actual event ends and the reenactment begins. It helps the listener to immerse themselves in the program, and makes the podcast feel less like a newscast, and more of an informative movie.

The Transitions Were 100% Invisible

What I found most interesting about the Vox Ex Machina podcast produced by 99% Invisible was the development of vocoding from military application to music production. The podcast was well produced in my opinion, I really liked how the podcaster was able to tell the history voder machine and intertwined excerpts of noise from an actual machine itself to help with the description. By using the actual audio of a voder machine and coded military radio broadcasts made the podcast very easy to understand the device techniques used to produce or understand the message. What I gathered from this episode has a lot to do with the importance of using outside sources and applying them to the podcast to make the episode sound professional. Also, the transitions between sources and the podcaster's voice was seamless. It felt like the outside sources contributed to the story telling aspects of the podcast and they are essential to create a compelling story.

This podcast discourages me from talking about the pieces of written code or historically undecipherable messages because I feel like it would be difficult to describe the intricacies of the Voynich Manuscript without showing pictures or going over certain aspects of the piece which make it so head scratching. But then again, I could find audio files of respected people or sources speaking about the difficulty in cracking certain famous codes. As far as formatting goes, I definitely want to ingrain audio of people discussing code, the code itself, or have a reenactment of a historical moment that seems relevant to the story.

About the Podcast of VIC Cipher

In the podcast of the VIC Cipher, I find that the producer uses appropriate background music in different scenarios. It really creates the mood of the text and let the audience experience the historical content vividly. When she mentioned about the dropping of the coin, she actually played that sound of dropping coins. This bring the audience directly to the scenario and make audiences curious about the plot of this event. Also, she used a man’s voice to reproduce when the FBI counts the number on the photo. With these setoffs, she makes her podcast interesting and fascinating. What’s more, she chooses a very interesting story about cryptography since the story begins with a coin. It is very unusual and very intriguing. She uses a very unusual beginning of her podcast. It is hard to believe the coin can lead to cryptography, so her beginning draws my attention on her podcast. I get to know a good beginning is helpful to my own podcast. In my podcast, I think I need to find an interesting topic and write an intriguing beginning. Also, I need to make my podcast fluently for the audience to listen to. I also find out we need a good source for our topic which can help building the podcast.

Podcast Critiques

To start, I'm writing this blog post now for the second time. For the second week in a row. To my fellow FYWS Cryptographers, write this in Word, Google Docs, or somewhere that's not here. Because this website likes to play cruel tricks and delete your post right when you click publish.

Anyway, I listened to The VIC Cipher, One-Time Pod Episode 14. Overall, I enjoyed the podcast, but there were definitely aspects that could've been improved. Here's a "pros and cons" list that I created while listening.


  • Introduction with a narrative style. The opening piece was engaging, and the story-telling style made it easy and fun to listen to.
  • The music seemed mysterious, helping to set the mood from the beginning.
  • The pacing was very appropriate - the podcast moved quickly, but not too quick that the listener couldn't follow along.


  • After the 3 minutes of story-telling in the beginning of the podcast, it became a lot more informational and dry. It was definitely harder to listen to for the last 10 minutes.
  • Sound effects sometimes seemed out of place and louder than the voice of the narrator.
  • At one point, the podcast took ~30 seconds to allow the listener to get out a pen and pencil. I think it could've been more effective to say something along the lines of  "at this point, feel free to pause the podcast and take out a pen and pencil" rather than stopping the whole podcast.
  • Definitely could've used some more humor/personality. The middle section was especially dry.

In my podcast, I would love to use the narrative, story-telling style that is used in the opening of this podcast. Additionally, I want to find music and sound effects that help set the mood and engage the listener, drawing them into the story that the podcast is creating. I definitely want to avoid losing the listener, which I hope to do by using a more excited tone, sometimes incorporating humor and more informal aspects.


The Panopticon as a Faulty Metaphor

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon: a prison where a guard is located in a tower. He can see all the prisoners, but the prisoners can not see him. In addition, the prisoners are not aware if they are being watched or not. As a result, prisoners act on their best behavior. Some have equated the idea of the Panopticon to Internet surveillance. I agree with Walker's argument that you can not compare the two.

The main fault in this analogy is the fact that citizens are unaware of the fact that the government can look at their Internet data. We are mostly ignorant to the exact magnitude of the government's surveillance abilities. As a result, people do not try to make their search history particularly clean or innocent. In addition, I believe that if people were aware that the government was watching their online activity, most individuals would not alter their actions much as the average person is not doing anything illegal online.

Another issue with the Panopticon metaphor is that the prisoners are completely isolated from one another. The Internet has the complete opposite effect on its users, actually bringing people together and connecting individuals on a level never seen before in history. Because of this connection, individuals are able to share their ideas of surveillance. If someone becomes suspicious of their privacy, they would be able to share their sentiments with other Internet users.

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