When you see a puzzle, a hidden message, or a secret code, do you have an urge to solve it? Let’s face it, cracking a code is a dopamine hit mixed with an adrenaline rush. From ancient times, humans have been forced to extrapolate from clues in their environment and solve problems to survive. Those who had no ability to think creatively or interpret hidden dangers in their environment did not live to pass on their genes.
For that reason, humans are predisposed to solve puzzles. There is an overwhelming impulse to fill in the blanks when presented with incomplete information. This penchant is lifelong, from small children learning to fit shapes into the proper openings on a toy to seniors working the daily crossword.
This is one of the reasons Dame Agatha Christie’s famous locked room mysteries and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales are so enduring. Their fans are forced to use a combination of ingenuity, logic, and deductive reasoning to bypass red herrings and ferret out the hidden motive behind the crime to arrive at the culprit. Many who read The Da Vinci Code (myself included) put the book down briefly to try to solve the various riddles and ciphers in the text before reading on to find the answers.
There are different types of brain-teasing puzzles that can be inserted into a manuscript. One of the most popular dates back centuries. Known as a substitution cipher, the simplest form of this code exchanges numbers for letters of the alphabet in order:
20/8/9/19, 9/19, 6/21/14 = THIS IS FUN
To make this more challenging, introducing a mathematical equation to the formula adds an extra layer of difficulty, and also conceals the fact that it’s an alphabetical substitution cipher. For this example, I doubled each number and subtracted five:
35/11/13/33, 13/33, 7/37/23 = THIS IS FUN
On a recent trip to New York City, I noticed several locations with competitive games for adults. Some involved solving a puzzle to “beat the bomb,” which consisted of brightly colored paint exploding over everyone. Others consisted of “escape rooms” where people were forced to work in teams to unlock the exit to get out first. These games can also be played online in virtual forums using avatars.
My upcoming release, A Killer’s Game, combines the classic elements of a locked room, riddles, and codes, while updating them with an escape room setting and a virtual reality component. The clues get progressively more difficult, upping the challenge for both the fictional participants and readers following their progress through a deadly labyrinth. There is even a point where captives must “beat the bomb” before it literally blows up in their faces.
Designing the venue and creating the puzzles was a lot of fun—although very challenging—to write, which gives me an appreciation for those who encode messages and generate them for the rest of us to enjoy. Two of these organizations are the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, who have invited the public to match wits against their best cryptographers. Famously, CIA headquarters in Langley has a sculpture called Kryptos erected in front that contains four encoded panels. Installed in 1991, three of the four have been solved, but the fourth remains a mystery to this day.
For its part, the NSA, nicknamed “No Such Agency,” has created a puzzle on its website designed to challenge all comers to decrypt the hidden message in the black box. For those who dare try it, I’ve included the image below, along with the instructions and a link to the NSA website where you can find it.
Can you solve this puzzle?
FT. MEADE, Md. –
In the spirit of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, NSA challenges you to solve this puzzle. The good news is that you don’t need to wait to receive a decoder ring in the mail! Everything you need for the solution has been provided.
Our puzzle does not require a large cryptography or computer science background to solve. For those interested in the history of ciphers, check out the Cryptologic Museum.
We’ll be interested in hearing from you about how you went about solving it. And don’t worry, unlike Ralphie’s secret message, our encoded message will not remind you to drink your Ovaltine!
How about it, readers? Going to give it a try?