Friday, November 30, 2012

Last Call

A very cool cryptography story to end the week with, as the nearly 450-year old coded writings of Rhode Island co-founder and 17th century theologian Roger Williams have finally been cracked by a Brown University team.

Historians call the now-readable writings the most significant addition to Williams scholarship in a generation or more. Williams is Rhode Island's founder and best known as the first figure to argue for the principle of the separation of church and state that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

His coded writings are in the form of notes in the margins of a book at the university's John Carter Brown Library. The nearly 250-page volume, "An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians," was donated in the 1800s and included a handwritten note identifying Williams as the notes' author — though even that was uncertain at first.

A group including former library director Edward Widmer, Williams scholar and Rhode Island 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 earlier 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," said Widmer. "I think people probably looked at it and shrugged."

And once again math for the win.

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. Lucas-Brown refined his analysis and came up with a rough key.

Williams' system consisted of 28 symbols that stand for a combination of English letters or sounds. How they're arranged is key to their meaning; arrange them one way and you get one word, arrange them another, you get something different. One major complication, according to Mason-Brown: Williams often improvised.

From there, Mason-Brown was able to translate scattered fragments, and the students determined there were three separate sections of notes. Two are Williams' writings on other books, a 17th century historical geography and a medical text. The third — and most intriguing — is 20 pages of Williams' original thoughts on one of the major theological issues of the day: infant baptism.

Some of the most famous minds in history kept their notes in coded fashion like this, precisely to keep knowledge and discussions of controversial topics out of the hands of people who would, you know, stone you or behead you for talking about things like "separation of church and state".  It's gratifying to know that centuries later, one American historical figure has a wealth of new knowledge to pass to us.

Now that deserves a round.

Peace Through Superior Building Power

Israel's response to Thursday's UN recognition vote granting Palestine "observer" status:  Kinda hard for you guys to have a country if we put our houses all over it.

Israel plans to build thousands of new homes for its settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, an Israeli official said on Friday, defying a U.N. vote that implicitly recognized Palestinian statehood there.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative government had authorized the construction of 3,000 housing units and ordered "preliminary zoning and planning work for thousands" more.

The official would not elaborate. But Israeli media said the government sought to hammer home its rejection of Thursday's upgrade, by the U.N. General Assembly, of the Palestinians to "non-member observer state" from "entity".

Hammer, nails, brick, mortar, drywall, concrete, bulldoze and shingle home that rejection, too.   Let's not forget the US has asked Israel before to chill with the settlement expansion in the West Bank, and that went nowhere fast as Netanyahu told President Obama to stick a 2 x 4 where the sun don't shine and Obama backed off.

Now after voting against the recognition of Palestine yesterday, it's not like the Obama administration can say a damn thing about this new and massive round of expansion, and the collective punishment of Palestinians continues unabated.

It's getting tiresome.

Opening Salvos From The Slope

President Obama's opening fiscal cliff slope offer, made through Tim Geithner, was a dose of cold, hard reality for the Republicans.  Naturally they're in full panic mode and screaming to the "liberal media" to punish the President for daring to make such an offer.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday rejected a White House offer to avoid the "fiscal cliff" that would include $1.6 trillion in tax increases, $400 billion in spending cuts and a more permanent increase in the debt ceiling, Republican aides said.

Aides said the offer was made by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Rob Nabors, a top White House adviser, during their meeting with Republican leaders in the Capitol.

While the Obama administration described the offer as reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years, Republicans told The Hill its tax increases amount to $600 billion more than what the Democratic-led Senate passed earlier this year when it approved legislation that would allow tax rates on top earners to rise.

“We’ve offered a balanced approach to deal with the fiscal cliff: raising revenue in a way that protects jobs while cutting spending,” said a Republican congressional aide familiar with the proposal. “But, after two weeks of discussions, the offer the White House made today is completely unbalanced and unreasonable, and amounts to little more than reiterating the president’s budget request — which failed to get a single vote in the House or Senate.”

As BooMan suggests, the Republicans are more than a little stunned by the boldness of the offer.  This is what President Obama's second term mandate means for them, and they don't like it a bit. They now know the President isn't bluffing.

The administration is threatening to weaken their ability to obstruct in the Senate or to blow up the economy by holding the debt ceiling hostage, while also demanding their tax hikes on the rich and refusing to offer anything remotely satisfactory (from the Republicans' point of view) in spending cuts.

Give the president what he wants or over the cliff we go. And the GOP gets the blame no matter what happens. Maybe you shouldn't have fucked with the president so much. 

Indeed, GOP meatheads like Newt Gingrich and El Rushbo are already saying the Republicans need to announce they are walking away from the table and that they don't care if the country burns if they go over the cliff slope.

Briar patch.  Just like it's been for the last four years.  Advantage:  Obama.  You can tell he's winning because the usual Village suspects are having a collective heart attack. 

Watch the fun begin.


Related Posts with Thumbnails