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Pig Pen

Pig Pen


Having now memorised the entire London Underground network, Spike has moved on to the main lines. Consequently, the soundtrack of my day is now punctuated with some less familiar station names. Bletchley pops up quite a bit, which set me thinking.  I thought I might have a bash at introducing the boys to code breaking, particularly Oscar.  

As well as being a number and pattern fan, Oscar regularly formulates top secret plans to ambush unsuspecting family members, so I though the idea might land well with him.  I had a slight ulterior motive, as he is not keen on writing and works hard to avoid it.  I tentatively hoped codes might encourage Oscar to pick up a pencil.  I was pretty enthused about the activity.  It brought back memories of whipping out my Parker Vector to decipher the crumpled missives from my friend in the row behind.  

Oscar was not impressed*.  In retrospect, codes (along with secret clubs, lockable pencil cases and messages written in invisible ink) were more a mainstay of the latter half of primary school.  I guess while you're still cracking the phonic code and the foundations of numeracy, wilfully obtuse codes are perhaps a step too far.

Or so I thought, until this evening, when Oscar and I made a felicitous and exciting discovery...

We were reading the fabulous Adventure Time. Thanks to my earlier bungled efforts to get Oscar code breaking, I recognised the symbols at the bottom of the page for what they were: pig pen**. I jabbed my finger at them excitedly, and Oscar gasped in recognition, and shouted "OH MY GOSH!".  I loved that he was so excited - bedtime be damned! I rushed to get my pen and paper, and we set to work.  I secretly felt a little smug (always a dangerous emotion).  But parenting wins rarely come that easily.

I drew out the cipher key, but as Oscar read out the corresponding letters, it quickly became apparent that something was amiss.

Hmm.  I was losing momentum with Oscar.  Codes are looking a bit rubbish again! I fiddled about for a bit. Clearly they had tweaked the cipher - but how?  I came up empty and Oscar gently suggested we should forget about it.  As a last attempt to recover the situation, I typed "Adventure Time Pig Pen" into Google, and - bless you, Internet - found a helping hand from one Aaron Randall.   

I felt a bit better about my cryptographic failure when I saw the acrobatics Aaron (MSc Computer Security) had to perform to reveal Adventure Time's secrets.  With the assistance of his computer he tried brute-force key rotation and frequency analysis, to no avail.  The comic contained two pig pen messages and I had spotted that they both concluded with the same 9 character sequence (small victory - yay me) - regrettably this did not advance the situation for me, but Aaron supposed that the repeated sequence was a sign off, a signature, as it was preceded with a hyphen.  He proceeded to brainstorm Adventure Time-relevant names and whittled it down to those with 9 characters.  Only one of those had repeated characters in the same position as in the signature - MARCELINE!

"Marceline" proved to be the key to unlocking the message. I absolutely encourage you to read the rest of Aaron's very cool and interesting account to see how he concluded his decryption.

Meanwhile, I needed to get Oscar back on board, so I scrolled to the bottom of the page and pinched the fruits of Aaron's labour, that hard-won cipher.

Oscar was delighted to be able to "crack the code" and wants to do more tomorrow.  I'll be getting the pencils out.

Thanks, Aaron.   

* Spike quite enjoyed it, though. I encrypted part of R.L. Stevenson's "From a Railway Carriage" and he grinned from ear to ear when he (very easily) deciphered it.

** I wouldn't swear on it, but I don't think my friends and I used pig pen.  We used rather drier alphanumeric substitutions.