Friday, February 1, 2008

Soot and Codes

The house we moved into in Taipei was a rental that passed from one US military family to the next. I know because along the outside of the house there was a pile of garbage that had been left by previous occupants that contained old American magazines going back a couple of years.

The house was very Chinese, I think. It was two stories, not counting the basement, which only held the coal furnace. The first floor had picture windows that looked out into a small yard. the yard was enclosed by a wall topped with broken glass embedded into the concrete, to discourage thieves. The entrance through the wall was through a gate at a corner.

The flooring throughout the house was cement. There was a drain in every room. This turned out to make a lot of sense. The coal we got to supply our furnace was bituminous, and the operation of the furnace filled the house with soot every morning. We'd wake up each day looking like we belonged in a minstrel show. The floors and walls would also be covered with soot.

There was no way my Mother was going to clean a house like that. Fortunately, maids were cheap. We got a Taiwanese maid. She simply threw buckets of water on the walls and floors and swept it down the drains, which dumped the soot and water soup into the river behind the house.

What I thought was so Chinese about the house was the way the upper story rooms were arrayed along a balconied walkway that looked down on the living room. It's a design that I've only seen in Western houses built since WW II created an interest in Asian designs. It meant the living room had about an 17 or 18 foot ceiling, instead of an 8 foot ceiling. You almost felt as if you were still outdoors. If it weren't for the walls and the cement floor, and the missing sky light, and the fact that there are no windows other than the one big one one the side facing the yard.

We'd barely settled in when my Father told us he would be leaving my mother and I alone there for six weeks while he "went to the Mountain." The Mountain was a location we weren't permitted to know anything more about, except that it was on a mountaintop of Taiwan, an island which, aside from the relatively flat area of Taipei, is itself mountain upon mountain, from north to south.

Now, I was trying to patch things up with my Father at this time. I thought the change of place might provide an opportunity. I saw him doing a cryptogram puzzle from a puzzle book and asked him how he did them. He told me how he looked at patterns and the frequency of letters. When he finished he complained that he'd done them all.

So I volunteered to make up new codes for him to crack. I scrambled the alphabet and wrote out a sentence with the new values.

When he would get the answers too fast I had a flash of insight. I could make a completely different kind of code. I invented a code that was essentially a vector code. After the beginning, the substitutions depended on the letters previously encountered in the message.

My Father was stumped, of course. It wasn't fair. A code that diabolical is too hard to decipher from such a small sample. But he was able to get it anyway, by guessing,.

Silly me, the only sentence I ever encoded was, "My Father is going to the Mountain next month."

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