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Tycho / on Wed, Oct 12 2011 at 12:00 am

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The Line

The strip is here.  We like it.  But you also might need it for…  something else.

Meet Elonka Dunin.  Longtime game developer at Simutronics Corp, creator of GemStone, DragonRealms, CyberStrike (“Game Of The Year!”), Facebook’s Fantasy University, and HeroEngine (which powers Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic).  Simutronics’ newest game just hit the App Store - Tiny Heroes, which I can easily recommend.  I met Elonka at a booksigning in St. Louis, where she gave me a copy of her Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms.  She’s a world expert on unsolved codes, such as the Kryptos sculpture at the center of CIA Headquarters; and helped author Dan Brown with code research for his latest novel, The Lost Symbol, to the point where he inserted a character in the book which is an anagram of her own name. We mail on occasion, and she’s such a specific combination of interesting skills I wanted to ask her a question: When did you know your brain worked differently from other people?

Ahem. My, er, brain?  Seems to be about the same size and shape as most other humans of my demographic.  I do get a lot of questions about how I got into crypto though, so here’s the best I can offer.

(Oh yeah, gotta start with this:  28-1 10-2 10-3 6-4 18-4 43-1 36-3 9-2 43-4 32-9 41-2 1-1 2-1 45-1 42-3 33-2 3-4)

So one of the most common questions I get is, “How did you get into this?”  In a nutshell, I kind of fell into it.  I mean, I’d always been into codes and ciphers since I was a kid.  Most of my interest in codes was just as a hobby though.  As for when I first realized that maybe my brain was different, maybe it was when I’d go down to the local corner store to buy a puzzle magazine.  There would usually be tons and tons of magazines with crossword puzzles, but I wasn’t interested in those — I wanted different kinds of puzzles, usually to do with cryptograms and logic puzzles. Each magazine would usually only have 1 or 2 of those, but I would have loved a magazine that was filled with them. Anyway, fast forward several years, this interest in games and puzzles flowed naturally into early computer games.  Simutronics logo I tore through all the Infocom games I could get my hands on, then when I ran out of single-player games to play, I started in on the multiplayer games. Then in 1990 I met some of the people writing those games, and a new career launched for me at Simutronics, as I began working on those games myself: coding, AI, writing, design, community management, technical writing, I loved it all (except art: Don’t ever ask me to draw anything, I suck at art, heh).

Fast forward a few more years, and that’s when I started bumping into cryptography again.  In 2000, I was speaking about computer games in Atlanta at Dragon*Con, in the “Electronic Frontiers Forums” track, and while there I got to meet some of the other speakers, who were giving talks about computer security. Through them, I heard about a code that had been released at the Nashville hacker convention, PhreakNIC 3.0.  It had been a challenge to the attendees, but no one had cracked it, so they were still looking for solvers.  Well, long story short, I picked up the flyer, and then a couple weeks later I cracked it. To announce my win, I had to post a message in haiku on a hacker mailing list.  Then I wrote a sort of tongue-in-cheek cyberpunk tutorial about how I’d done it, which you can see here.  Then I went around and cracked a bunch of other codes in the cyber scene, to the point where I was banned from competition!  At the @LANta.con hacker conference, when they released their cipher, it said at the bottom: “Note, past code crackers are ineligible for prizes associated with solving the @LANta.con2 puzzle; give someone else a chance, Elonka”! 

(So yeah, I cracked that one too.)

Then a few months later, 9/11 happened, which of course changed everything.  I have a cousin who was supposed to be at the Pentagon that morning, and had a close call. I flew out to DC to hug him and we visited the Pentagon memorial, and then we did some sightseeing around DC, including trying to talk our way into CIA Headquarters to go see the Kryptos sculpture.  We were not successful, but I took it as a challenge, and later finagled an invitation to the Agency, by putting together a talk about steganography and what kinds of ciphers Al Qaeda might have been using to plan the attacks (that’s a whole ‘nother story to tell). Elonka at the CIA Kryptos sculpture in 2002After seeing Kryptos, I made a webpage about my visit, and that page changed my life, as all of a sudden I started getting correspondence from all over the world about the sculpture, and people were asking me questions about it.  I didn’t know most of the answers, but I went and did research, and then created an FAQ and then I created a list of other famous unsolved codes, and the public interest was immense — my site has had millions of unique visitors.  Dan Brown contacted me for info about Kryptos, and a British book publisher asked me to write a book about codes, and I found myself getting speaking invites all over the place.

It’s fun, and flattering, though sometimes it’s tough juggling this crypto hobby (which is time-consuming but doesn’t pull in a lot of money), with my other interests. Tiny Heroes artwork For example, aside from my dayjob at Simutronics <plug>(did I mention we just released the game Tiny Heroes, which everyone MUST GO BUY NOW AND GIVE US A 5-STAR RATING! </plug>  I also do volunteer work down at the Saint Louis Science Center when I can, and it’s really rewarding working with the kids there.  And I help out at Wikipedia, where I’ve written about 400 articles so far, especially in the topic area of medieval history (another long story there of the connection between my crypto hobby and the Knights Templar!).  And as of a few months ago I’m on the Board of Directors for the Global Game Jam, an amazing event that takes place each January, when teams get together all over the world and make games on the same weekend.  At the January 2011 event we had teams in 44 different countries that churned out over 1500 games.  I can’t wait for January 2012!

Oh yeah, and here’s more of that cipher I started with:

42-4 14-2 26-1 32-10 35-3 54-3 56-1 3-3.

And a Hint: BOOK=18.

Elonka :)

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