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Boak's Puzzle Revisited

A reader, GregoryF, has proposed a solution to Boak's puzzle. Many years ago, David G. Boak of the NSA gave lectures to train employees on communications security matters. In one case he presented a written story about insufficiently burned crypto materials (keys, etc.), several tons' worth, that needed disposal.

Boak didn't quite explain how they disposed of the waste. Instead, he coded the answer using an innocent text system and challenged the readers to solve it.

GregoryF's solution is posted as a comment to the earlier article. He actually came up with two different solutions. The "system" behind the second solution gets somewhat complicated, which casts some doubt on its correctness. Also, I haven't quite recovered the same results.

Spoilers ahead!

Gregory's approach is to look for typographical errors, particularly misspellings. I've been able to locate all but one of Gregory's errors. He found an "e" typo between "beem dumped" in the second paragraph and "tabluations" in the third which I haven't spotted.

Gregory's solution yields 4 sensible words before the transposition, and then gets vague after that. He mined the paragraphs for plausible alternatives, plugged them in the message, and tried to construct a code to match them. He wisely views the result with suspicion.

Solution #1: "The telling ash was with you."

Could this be the answer? Here's a wild conjecture: the NSA contracted with a papermaking company to use the ash to create paper. The paper was then used to publish Boak's lectures. This seems unlikely, unless the NSA did clearances on all the paper mill employees first.

Here's a less wild one: the ash was buried somewhere on the NSA campus, possibly under a building or parking lot. That interprets the "with us" as being "with NSA" or "with" the students who are presumably on the NSA campus. And this leads nicely to #2.

Solution #2: "The telling ash was simple buried"

This makes more sense but, as Gregory notes, the coding rules get rather arbitrary to make this text appear. If we have to invent rules to make a message appear, then we might just be finding the message we want.

Such codes conjure up the honorable Ignatius Donnelly, a legend around these parts. His big real estate venture, Nininger, Minnesota, contributed several homes to our town after it failed to thrive. In cryptography, Donnelly is known for analyzing the text of Shakespeare's plays for secret messages. He published a thick book describing a coded message that "proved" Francis Bacon had really written the plays.

According to Kahn's The Codebreakers, one  J. G. Pyle soon thereafter proposed an alternative code. When applied to Hamlet, it yielded a message that called Donnelly a "mountebanke" by name (more or less).

So maybe we haven't solved it yet.

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Still, progress! Hooray! Even this basic crypto is very, very tough.

I don't suppose we could just find Mr. Boak and ask him whether we've cracked his code or not? I know he'd be very, very old by now, but is he actually dead?

In a complete aside, now that you've become the latest casualty of UST's largely demented Tenure Committee... would you mind sharing with your readership what you're doing now? Hopefully moving on to a university that _doesn't_ fire noted experts from fields it claims to teach?

Regarding my professional situation: I'm keeping a faculty appointment at UST and will be teaching the security course again next semester.

I think the tenure situation was influenced by low enrollments in computer science. Last year was the only year during which I was kept busy the whole time teaching CS courses. Previous years I had to teach engineering and/or graduate courses to fill up my schedule.

I'm now busy as a consultant, with some time for writing projects.

Good! Hopefully those enrollments will (continue) to tick upwards.


Gregory dropped me an e-mail pointing out the misspelling I missed - Ft. Meyer was missing it's "e".

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