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Encryption Security Science

Fermilab Calls For Code Crackers 392

atrocious cowpat passes along a call for help from symmetry magazine, the joint publication of Fermilab and SLAC, noting: "Could be just plain gibberish, it could be something like those wonderfully weird letters to the Mount Wilson observatory, or it could be a message from aliens who just happened to have gotten their hands (tentacles/exoskeleton) on a fax machine." "A little over a year ago, the Fermilab Office of Public Affairs received a curious letter in code (4.4-MB image here). It has been sitting in our files all that time and we haven't had much of a chance to look into breaking the code, nor are we particularly expert at this!"
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Fermilab Calls For Code Crackers

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  • Clearly.. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:14AM (#23434012)
    It's Dr. Emma Russells formula for cold fusion.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by sammyF70 ( 1154563 )
      Though I seriously can't believe she missed her error in the 2nd part. Too bad, she was really doing well until that.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      The message reads "I should have used ROT13"
    • Context? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @12:04PM (#23434942) Homepage
      To be able to decrypt a message it is usually necessary to know the context to where it belongs. Without context it's hard.

      And is it really a message, it can be other things too:

      1. A data sampling done by hand with two samplings, the first has three alternatives the second has two. The code in the middle is just thrown in for good measure by a joker.
      2. It's someone's way to compose music. The first part is for a simple instrument with three tones, the last part is another instrument with two alternatives (bongo drums?). The middle part is just markers used to remind the performers about what to sing.
      3. Someone's idea of a prank to pull.
    • by CrazedWalrus ( 901897 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @12:32PM (#23435444) Journal
      I think it's Digital Fortress.

      Fortunately, the Slashdot Hive Mind has a safety shutdown when the story rolls off the front page.
  • by clonan ( 64380 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:15AM (#23434016)
    The Roswel aliens that were stranded on earth brainwashed some NEC employees who planted the code in all fax machines to send the fax to fermilabs who then posts it on the internet (which would be invented in 40 years) and thereby transmitted to mars...

    Makes perfect sense!
  • by Eevee ( 535658 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:15AM (#23434024)
    But it seems he's from Nigeria and wants help tranferring money out of the country.
  • Well, obvious stuff: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by morgan_greywolf ( 835522 ) * on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:15AM (#23434032) Homepage Journal
    Three "stanzas" maybe.

    Starting with the "middle" stanza, that appears to be some sort of "key" perhaps. Each of the different symbols correspond to a different hexadecimal digit.

    In the first stanza, each grouping of lines has 1, 2 or 3 lines.

    In the last stanza, each group of lines is only 1 or 2 lines.

    Maybe the last stanza is binary?

    And maybe the first stanza is base 3?

    Anyone else care to wager a guess?
    • Anyone care to host a mirror?

      (Really. Direct linking to a 4MB .pjg from the front page of /. for a code. That website never had a chance.)
      • by morgan_greywolf ( 835522 ) * on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:27AM (#23434260) Homepage Journal
        Mirror here []. I think Google's servers can probably handle the traffic. ;)
        • by ledow ( 319597 )
          Looks like you're wrong. I couldn't get anything at all from that link
          • Coral cache (Score:3, Informative)

            by irae ( 1152885 )
            Here's coral cache version [], works for me fine. Link provided by slashdotter [], firefox plugin.
            • by Jhan ( 542783 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @02:12PM (#23437390) Homepage
              (trying to move the interesting stuff to the top) The top and bottom part of the code code the same data. The little indentation at the beginning of the line is important and means that the previous line continues. The indentation in the bottom bottom part is of, perhaps because of writing conditions. The top part consists of five trinary numbers of lengths 29, 46, 14, 14, 8 digits. The bottom part consists of five binary numbers of lengths 75, 110, 37, 36, 8 digits. My best transcription, probably with errors:

              char trinary[8][40]={
              "323233331112132", // 15
              "33323132212331", // 14 29
              "2111331132312233", // 16
              "333212123213113", // 15
              "311333313331111", // 15 46
              "211333323232211", // 14 14
              "232313331121231", // 14 14
              "33231312"}; // 8 8
              char binary[8][40]={
              "111010110101010101101010101110101101", // 36
              "1101101101011101011011101011011101111", // 37 75
              "1111010101101101011101010101110111011", // 37
              "0111010110110111011101110111011101110", // 37
              "111011011101110101101110100011101011", // 36 110
              // Should have been more clearly to the left?
              "1010110111011101110110111010101110111", // 37 37
              // Should have been two steps to the left?
              "011011011101101110110111010110111010", // 36
              • by bodan ( 619290 ) <> on Friday May 16, 2008 @03:31PM (#23438674)
                Not a critique as such and only vaguely on topic: Does anyone else find it interesting that parent found it natural to represent ternary using 1-2-3 and binary using 0-1?

                That was actually my first instinct too when I was "reading" the thing...
              • If you break this up into tuples of 4 and Google it, you get some interesting matches from geomagnetic observatory data.

                -- Terry
              • by ThreeGigs ( 239452 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @09:00PM (#23442150)
                The first and last parts *DO NOT* look like terniary and binary to me.

                Instead, they look like an RLL encoded pattern, similar to what you'd see on a hard drive. Maybe NRZI.

                In fact, the first looks surprisingly like (1,3) MFM RLL.
                Also reminds me of the old Apple Floppy drive "between any two ones there can only be a maximum of one zero" data writing rule.

              • by wirelessbuzzers ( 552513 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:50PM (#23443064)
                We've mostly solved it further down the thread. The top section is in ternary (with 0 replaced by |||), 000-space, 001->a, 002->b, etc. It's strangely wrapped: the spaces and non-spaces at the beginnings and ends of lines count. It says "FRANK SHOEMAKER WOULD CALL THIS NOISE".

                The second part we haven't deciphered yet. It's possible that we'd need a Fermilab insider for this.

                The third part is RLL. Once you decode the RLL (number of | between consecutive ||), you get the same code as part one, which says "EMPLOYEE NUMBER BASSE SIXTEEN", or so I've been told. This suggests that at least one part of the puzzle requires help from Fermilab people.

                My uninformed guess is that once we solve the middle section, we'll get someone's name. His or her employee number at Fermilab spells something out in base 16, a coincidence which Frank Shoemaker would call "noise". Another possibility is that the middle section is hex-encoded employee ID numbers, which would mean that we can't solve it.
    • by spydum ( 828400 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:22AM (#23434172)
      Agreed, first grouping is probably base-3, 2nd is key with the index being hex, and 3rd grouping is base-2.. and if I convert it out.. it ends up drawing an image of the guy... damnit!
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      The middle stanza is unlikely to be a key as it has many signs repeated. F, D, 6, 3, 9 etc.
    • Notice the offsets on the first stanza. The absence of a character is strongly denoted, probably contributing to either a vertical or linear understanding of the text, or to an alternate base.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by azzuth ( 1177007 )
        Anyone else notice there are 8 digits if we break it into binary verticaly? such as from top to bottom left to right the first being 10100111 and alternatively bottom to top (as if the page were rotated 90 degrees clockwise) 11100101...

        The Binary can then be converted to Hex and then perhaps deciphered...

        Working on it atm..
    • by moderatorrater ( 1095745 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @12:11PM (#23435060)
      Another possibility: a blank represents a 0, a mark indicates a 1, giving us binary. This fits better with the hex in the middle of the page, since three binary go into one hex. The symbols don't make any sense, however, so if that's a key, then it's going to just translate it into another code.

      If I weren't at work, I would try translating the hash marks into their hex equivalent, storing that, then translating the hex to the symbols that were given and storing that separately. The symbols may mean something to someone other than me (some of them look hebrew, but some of them definitely aren't; perhaps astrology symbols or something else?), or it may be that the key in the middle is a red herring and that the hex itself codes for something (ascii being the most likely generally, although a quick glance seems to indicate that some of them would code for non-display characters).

      Most likely a hoax all things considered. A (accidentally?) clever hoax, considering the hex in the middle and the many interpretations of the vertical lines, but most likely a hoax nonetheless.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by AoT ( 107216 )
        All of the symbols I recognize are mathematical or logical notation. i is imaginary numbers, the character under it could be an empty set or a zero. B is a minus sign. 6 is the negation sign. in logical notation. 7 is the greek letter phi, used for a number of things [], most importantly the golden ration. D looks familiar but I can't place it right now, same with 4.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Dachannien ( 617929 )
      I'm thinking the last stanza is also base 3, with digits then represented in unary, but with || indicating a division between the base 3 digits.

      So || | | || is "2" with a separation marker on each end.

      This would put an anomaly at the end of the second line which could be interpreted as the || being broken across the two lines (so the second line would end with 3 and the third line would start with 3).

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        I think that's an interesting approach. Statistically speaking, if | and || would be two different symbols, the chance that one of them would never appear consecutively would be zero. As such, I agree that the || is probably a demarcation. Furthermore, the last character at the end of each line of the last stanza is probably also a demarcation, drawn before actual code series was written out. The reason I say that is because the last characters are the only ones that are actually beneath each other - the s
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Fantome ( 7951 )
      My transcription of the first block:
      32323333 1112132
      33323132 212331
      21113311 32312233
      33321212 3213113
      31133331 3331111
      21133332 3232211
      23231333 1121231

      My transcription of the second block:
      11121211 21212121 21121212 12111212 1121
      11211211 21211121 21121112 12112111 21111
      11112121 21121121 21112121 21211121 11211
      21112121 12112111 21112111 21112111 21112
      11121121 11211121 21121112 12221112 1211
      12121121 11211121 11211211 12121211 12111
      21121121 11211211 12112111 21211211 1212
      11212121 1

      Any see errors in this (p
    • by baffled ( 1034554 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @12:40PM (#23435602)
      You're thinking waaay too deep.

      Turn the page 90 degrees clockwise.

      It says 'Hi'
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Bob9113 ( 14996 )
      Two quick observations:

      The frequency of 3's in the first stanza is disproportionately high.

      The pattern '1,1,1,2,1' appears several times in the third stanza.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by goodmanj ( 234846 )
      Trinary/hex/binary Rosetta Stone seems likely on the face of it....

      However, if Section 1 is trinary, its information content is equal to 180 bits (113 symbols times log2(3) bits per symbol). The second section, in hex, has 96 bits, and the third, if in binary, has 266 bits. Unless one symbol set has a huge amount of redundancy, they're not the same length.


      A casual glance at the "binary" third section suggests it's unlikely to be any sort of ASCII-like binary substitution cipher, and possibly not
  • The dots (Score:4, Interesting)

    by personalo ( 1272724 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:17AM (#23434078) Homepage
    My question is: Are the tiny dots in the background a dirty fax or photocopier artifact or are they, in fact, the code.
  • Google recruiting? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by spydum ( 828400 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:19AM (#23434108)
    Perhaps Google is targeting Fermilab scientists for hiring.. Don't they have a history of using strange riddles and puzzles for hiring purposes?
  • Hmmm... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Omicron32 ( 646469 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:20AM (#23434134)
    4.4MB image link on the front page of Slashdot? I sense a great disturbance in the force...
  • by wile_e_wonka ( 934864 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:21AM (#23434154)
    Very odd indeed! I received this cryptic message (which it seems I've seen before):

    Could not connect to remote server

    You tried to access the address [], which is currently unavailable. Please make sure that the Web address (URL) is correctly spelled and punctuated, then try reloading the page.
  • by hengdi ( 1202709 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:23AM (#23434198)
    There are 113 symbols, each of which is either 1, 2 or 3 strokes. So it is essentially a 113 digit base 3 number.

    This limits the amount of information that the message is trying to pass.

    For example, using base 26 - all the letters - means we could convey the same information in ??? digits.

    Oh damn it. I'm too drunk and Google ain't working for me. Perhaps someone could give a value for ???

    But I'm betting it won't be very many digits. I.e. this message is very short.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by whitneyw ( 1135381 )
      Considering that the ticks are vertically aligned, I would consider the interstitial spaces important parts of the message. Also note that the top block contains no more than three ticks consecutively, while the bottom block contains no more than two. Neither contain consecutive spaces, and both appear to start with a tick (not a space).

      Part of it bears a striking resemblance to UPC code for "8200019288".
      • by mr_mischief ( 456295 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:46AM (#23434650) Journal
        Jose Cuervo Especial, 750 ml, 12-pack case.

        Mystery solved! []

        Damn, Google has us spoiled.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        The interstices would not represent zeroes, unless the message just happened to have no more than 1 zero in a row. Hence | represents 0, || represents 1, and ||| represents 2, or some rotation of that.

        By the way, this is apparently some kind of "unary" notation, though what zero it is remains to be seen. Similarly, the bottom set, having no more than two | in a row, might be another unary notation of something in a base 2.

        As for the little dots, some, like the symbol for E, are repeated, so it's safe to a
      • Analysis! (Score:3, Interesting)

        It's Caveman analysis.

        Someone is counting the number of something. Day one, it was 3. Day 2, 2. on day 4, 2 show up. Probably animals at a watering hole. Then one of them dies... or maybe the hunter kills it.

        Then he starts analysis again, to see how long it takes for a 3rd to show again.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        I'm not certain your statements are entirely correct. I attempted to create a binary pattern to start with and there are some ambiguities in the coding positions. For instance, on the left hand side of both code blocks some of the "first" ticks don't align with other first ticks. There are also some places in the code where the vertical alignment is ambiguous. If there cannot be consecutive spaces and there *can* be spaces in the first and last columns then I'd read the first block as:

        Line 1) 1110110111
  • by Mortiss ( 812218 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:23AM (#23434200)
    Crackers do not fall for this trap. It is an obvious attempt to spread the Snow Crash!
  • Strange... (Score:5, Funny)

    by BlueStrat ( 756137 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:24AM (#23434210)
    It seems to be some sort of construction/zoning notice. Something about a hyperspace-bypass being put in...


  • by The Insane One ( 25793 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:25AM (#23434214)
    Just let me get a pencil and some paper.

    "All your base are belo"

    Oh crap.
  • by Crash McBang ( 551190 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:25AM (#23434220)
    The translation comes out as:

    My name is Kosh Naranek.

    I am writing this brief letter to bring to your attention a business offer which we believe you might find attractive.
    Mrs Maria Garibaldi; wife of one a wealthy Martian executive (Late Mr. Michael Garibaldi) seeks a business assistance from a reliable and reputable businessman to invest and manage funds to the tune of 15 Million Credits...

  • where I left my score sheet.

  • Source? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by aleph42 ( 1082389 ) * on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:27AM (#23434282)
    Any hint on the source, or at least why they consider it important?

    Not to be harsh, but if I send some random code letter to some lab, I guess (hope) it won't make the news, even on slashdot.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by esocid ( 946821 )
      My plan finally worked. One long year of waiting has paid off. It's just nonsense I made up to get some people to try and crack it.
  • Anyone manage to mirror the image before it went boom?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Try this link:
    • by Z00L00K ( 682162 )
      I have a copy, I converted it to a PNG [], and I also have the JPG if you really think it helps, but you will have to change the suffix yourself!
  • (or a CV for those of us in the Old World) - it's probably some bright wag who thinks he'll get noticed by sending his resume as a code.
  • Mirrored Copy (Score:5, Informative)

    by LaptopZZ ( 88619 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:39AM (#23434504)
    I mirrored it on my server as well as made a scaled down version which is just as readable as the original (unless you're making a poster).

    Happy Cracking
  • Is it printed on recycled toilet paper? the kind used in the sewers, perhaps?
  • It reads "Use only Genuine Interocitor Parts". Seems gibberish to me.
  • by aarenz ( 1009365 )
    This is the code from the final puzzel in Myst episode called Riven. Not really, but it looks quite similar in function. Someone who was able to master that game without a guide book would be able to figure this one out in a flash.
  • Since 4.4Mb is obviously going to get slashdotted. I've got a copy at fileshack [] and at filebox []. Reduced to 47Kb of course.
  • Google Translate just added 10 new languages. []
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:54AM (#23434778)
    It's obviously Woodstock. He's telling Snoopy about encryption.
  • by Uncle Focker ( 1277658 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:54AM (#23434784)
    'PC Load Letter'? What the fuck does that mean?
  • by Ralph Spoilsport ( 673134 ) * on Friday May 16, 2008 @11:59AM (#23434856) Journal
    To me, the strokes look like a clapping pattern. I sat and clapped it out at my desk here, and if done at a fairly brisk pace, the top section is an interesting and often asymmetric rhythm.

    Parts of it clap out to sound like "apocalypse in 9/8, (co-starring the delicious talents of Gabble Ratchet)" by Genesis from Foxtrot []

    But the whole thing is scattered enough that it comes out like more of a one handed improv or approximation of Steve Reich's "Clapping Music". []

    The bottom section is less rhythmically active, but sounds more "even", kind of "rock and roll" ish.

    The middle part is a dull cipher, similar to Nugsoth. []

    That's all I've got.


  • It's a tempo guide for the person who's messing with the fluorescent ceiling light in the corner of my office. I swear the light is flickering to the same cadence as the tick marks on the page.
  • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @12:30PM (#23435402)
    1. Four DNA characters: A, C, G, T
    2. Four character sequences: |, ||, |||, (space)
    3. Determine character mapping.
    4. ...
    5. Velociraptor.
  • Seriously though, what the frack are these symbols? I think most of them fit into extended ascii, but not D and 4 (at a minimum, i'm basing this on knowledge from 20 years ago...)
  • Digitized (Score:4, Informative)

    by panthro ( 552708 ) < minus caffeine> on Friday May 16, 2008 @01:18PM (#23436260) Homepage


    S f c

  • by Bogtha ( 906264 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @02:26PM (#23437654)

    See those three symbols on their own? An S, followed by a triangle, followed by a three-pronged character? Well if you look in the table directly above those three characters, you'll see that the triangle translates to F and the three-pronged character translates to C, giving S.F.C. altogether.

    Clearly the Roswell Greys were on their way home from picking up a Spacetucky-Fried Chicken takeaway when they crashed here.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 16, 2008 @03:58PM (#23439048)
    while it may not be terribly relevant to the solution, it's worth noting a few oddities about the author's writing style. first of all, the second set of vertical lines is likely to be read right to left. notice how well justified the right side of the message is, while the left side terminates at various locations. we also know he writes the individual clusters from left to right based on the strokes left at the bottom of the bars.

    secondly, i assume the author is writing with a felt tip pen and is transcribing this from another source. notice how some bars will have a larger dot at one end or the other. i postulate that the author has set down his pen and is checking another sheet to determine what to write, while his felt pen bleeds a little too much ink onto the paper. this, however, doesn't happen with a ball point pen. perhaps this will be of assistance in determining the order strokes were written in, giving us some insight into the author's intent.

    thirdly, notice that the author writes the number 0 with a slash through it, but not the number 7 with a dash through it. i'm not an expert on handwriting identification, but certain groups will often be more keen on the selection of particular stylistic numbers, so this may help us to understand something of the author's background.

    finally, note that many of the chars used in the second section are letters from other char sets. the letter i is obvious to the english readers, but less apparent is the instance of one that looks suspiciously like a greek capital phi. also, several bear a striking resemblance to chars that appear in a masonic cypher alphabet. [] can the other chars be identified as belonging to specific alphabets?
  • by wirelessbuzzers ( 552513 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @06:35PM (#23440962)
    The first part is ternary, with 3 substituted for 0. It's somewhat miswrapped, but it appears to say "FRANK SHOEMAKER WOULD CALL THIS NOISE".
  • Oh NO! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Satanboy ( 253169 ) on Friday May 16, 2008 @07:40PM (#23441462)
    It's a Cookbook!

Matter cannot be created or destroyed, nor can it be returned without a receipt.