# The Ol’ Switcheroo – Substitution Ciphers Old and New (for kids)

A Roman general paces in his tent after another long day of battle. A messenger from Rome has finally arrived with word about reinforcements, but the messenger himself knows nothing. In case he was waylaid, it was important for him to have no information—a wise precaution, it turns out, as this was the third messenger to set out with the message and the only one to arrive.

The general waits impatiently as his scribe decodes the message. Finally the scribe reads it aloud. “Help is on the way.” The general sighs in relief and dictates a reply to Caesar.

Secret codes and ciphers have been in use for thousands of years. There are many different kinds of codes and ciphers. A substitution cipher is a type of secret code that exchanges each letter in the alphabet for another letter or for a symbol. That way, if the message gets into the wrong hands, it won’t mean anything to the enemy.

Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, who lived from 100 to 44 B.C., was known for using a simple alphabetical substitution cipher to communicate with his generals during war.

The encryption key to Julius Caesar’s cipher is made by writing the alphabet twice. First, write out the whole alphabet and then repeat A-F after Z. Directly underneath the first alphabet, write another alphabet, but move it over by six spaces like this:

 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z U V W X Y Z A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T

To put a message into code, find each letter in the top row and substitute it with the letter directly beneath it. To decode a message, find the letter on the bottom row and substitute it with the letter directly above.

Now see if you can decode the general’s reply written in Caesar’s cipher.

QY MBUFF UNNUWE UN XUQH

That wasn’t too hard, was it? But Caesar’s cipher can be a pretty easy code for someone to break because the key keeps the alphabet in the same order and just shifts it over. It is easy to use to encode and decode messages, but unfortunately, it also makes the code easy to break. It’s a little too straightforward.

So let’s try something harder but still pretty simple for a busy, or embattled, general and his scribe to remember and encode. We’ll mix up the letters but in an organized way.

A name cipher begins with a name and then adds the letters of the alphabet that aren’t in the name in alphabetical order. When you choose a name for a name cipher, it’s easiest if it doesn’t have any letters that repeat. A long name is good, too, unless it has a lot of repeats. For example, if you choose the name Amanda, the seven letter name only really counts as four letters for the cipher key because three of the seven letters are ‘a.’

For this example let’s start with James since it has no repeating letters.

 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z J A M E S B C D F G H I K L N O P Q R T U V W X Y Z

If you look at the end of the alphabet in the key, you’ll see that a lot of the letters stay the same. This might be a flaw in the code, but it might just turn out okay. We’ll see. Before you start decoding, take a good look at the message. Are there any words that you think you can guess without the key?

You can try to solve the whole message without the key, or use the cipher key above to decode the message below.

QNRSR JQS QSE

VFNISTR JQS AIUS

YNU DJVS RNIVSE TDFR MNES WSII

CNNE BNQ YNU

Did you notice that you could use the length of the words to help you decode them even without the key? In this message the word “you” was spelled YNU, so it was pretty easy to guess if you were trying to break the code.

One way to make breaking the code harder is to take the spaces out of the encoded message, so the words all run together. Code makers often transmit messages in groups of five letters with a space between. This makes it harder to guess the words.

This last substitution cipher uses symbols instead of letters, and it’s broken up into blocks of five letters. Can you solve it?

 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z ~ ` ! \$ # % & ^ * ( ) _ + = – ? / { ] [ } | \ : ; “

;-}~{  #~\$#!  -\$*=&  !^~+?  *-==-  \*[*]  [*+#[  -+~)#  ;-}{-  \=]}`  ][*[}  [*-=!  *?^#{

Now you can use what you’ve learned about substitution ciphers to make your own. Will you make it with letters or symbols? Make two copies of the key and start exchanging secret messages with a friend!

# Scarcity Culture

Originally posted in May 2013, “Scarcity Culture” has become one of the most popular of my web posts.

Have you heard the phrase “scarcity culture”? It seems to be big right now – something that’s regularly popping up on blogs and my Twitter feed. As I understand it, our living in a scarcity culture means that we’re always focused on what we lack rather than on what we have.

It’s ironic, right? We Americans who have so very, very much are completely focused on what we’re missing. I think we’re all guilty of this, though maybe to greater or lesser degrees. I know I can be quick to complain that I just don’t have enough time when I’m asked to do another volunteer job or pick up a snack for Youth Group at church when I’ve already done the weekly shopping. Could I have done it in the thirty minutes I spent noodling on Twitter? Sure, I could. But I didn’t.

But that’s not really the point I want to make about this idea of scarcity, otherwise I’ll be writing yet another article about how to budget your time wisely. You can Google time management if you’re looking for advice about that. I can tell you; there’s a lot out there on that particular subject.

No, my thoughts on living in a scarcity culture when the reality for so many of us is luxury have little to do with fixing problems that might lead to scarcity thinking – problems like time management or money management or stuff management. My thoughts have much more to do with changing how we’re thinking about our lives and what’s happening in them. As I’ve considered what I’ve read about scarcity culture, I’ve realized that it’s really a kind of pessimism. It’s an eagerness to see the glass half empty rather than half full.

Though I succumb to scarcity thinking some of the time, I’m naturally an optimist. It’s a family trait, passed down from my dad’s family. I once overheard a conversation between the in-laws at a family reunion. They were discussing how annoying it could be that this family was so darned cheerful and optimistic all the time, so unrealistic! And yet, there’s much to be said for counting one’s blessings.

May is my birthday month. As I embark upon this newest year of my life, I’m making a resolution. In this culture of scarcity I’m going to redouble my efforts to notice the incredible amount of luxury we have. For the next year I’m going to try to notice the things that I have more often than I notice the things that I lack. It’s easy to try to do six fun things on one weekend and fail because there really, truly isn’t enough time. It’s harder, but oh so much more rewarding, to do one fun thing in a weekend – to be really present, to enjoy every second. That’s my goal, to focus on that one fun thing, and then maybe, just maybe, I’ll have time to give the bathroom that really good scrubbing it’s been needing. And maybe, when I’m finished with that, I’ll feel good about that, too.

# My Oldest Sweater

One of my first blog posts ever, updated in 2015.

I try very hard not to be sentimental about things. Things get broken or lost and, to use a cliché, you can’t take them with you. Nonetheless, I have a sweater that I love. It’s off-white acrylic. I think my mother bought it from the Sears Catalog 30 years ago. It has real wooden buttons, interesting cables, and pockets for tissues. At some point, maybe 20 years ago, I managed to trade my mother another sweater for this one.

This sweater’s certainly seen better days. It’s covered with pills. The cuff near my Velcro watchband is particularly fuzzy. The top button’s been missing for 19 ½ years and though there’s a spare button sewn into the seam, I never seem to find time to fix it.

I don’t wear it in public. When I go to school to pick up the kids or out on errands or appointments, I swap it for something more respectable. But it’s always hanging there waiting for me when I get back home.

I’m not sure exactly why I like it so much. I think it’s partly because it was my mom’s. She laughs every time she sees me in it. “Are you still wearing that sweater?” But wearing it is rather like getting a hug from Mom whenever I want. Maybe I love it partly because it’s been with me so long: through planning our wedding, buying our first house, nursing babies in the wee hours, hours of solitary writing, leaf fights in the yard.

I could make a replacement. I’ve knit more complicated sweaters. I could buy some wool, copy the cables, re-use the buttons. A wool sweater would be warmer. In winter in our chilly house, an acrylic sweater doesn’t do it without another layer over or underneath. If I made a new sweater, I could wear it to school pick-up or to a friend’s house for coffee. But that sweater wouldn’t cradle me in memories.

So I’ll take credit for my sustainability: using things until they wear out, keeping things out of the landfill, and being generally frugal. But really, to be honest, it’s my security blanket. To me, it’s perfect as it is.

Do you have a security object?

Updated on April 2, 2015

# “Star Wars” on the Reservation (for kids)

A kids’ article, part of this week’s repost series.

There’s a new version of Star Wars in select theaters, and it’s on a mission to keep the Navajo language alive.

The Navajo are a Native American people who live in the southwest United States. Recently, the elders of the Navajo people became concerned because thousands of Navajo children and young adults are learning English as their primary language instead of learning the Navajo language, Diné (DEE- nay). Many Navajo children speak and understand little Diné. The elders decided to act to keep Diné alive.

Manuelito Wheeler and the elders of the Navajo people picked George Lucas’ 1977 movie Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope to help teach the ancient language of the Navajo people. They knew that both adults and children would enjoy watching Star Wars over and over, and they’d have to watch a lot to learn Diné.

Diné uses both words and tonal change to convey meaning. It is extremely hard to learn if you haven’t grown up hearing and speaking it.

What is tonal change?

English doesn’t have many examples of tonal change, but here’s one. Think about how you ask a question in English. At the end of the question your voice goes up. That tells your listener you are asking a question instead of making a statement.  (In a statement, your tone goes down at the end.) Unlike English, in Diné, there are tonal changes throughout the sentences that have meaning, too.

The elders figured that if the English-language voices in the movie could be replaced by voices in Diné using a process called dubbing both children and adults could enjoy watching the movie, and kids who didn’t speak Diné  would begin to understand the words and tones. Wheeler contacted the makers of the film to see if they would be willing to help, and they were.

Once it started, the project was completed very quickly. A team of five translators worked together on the script, and the whole translation was finished in about thirty-six hours. They had to work hard, though. A lot of the words in the original film simply don’t exist in Navajo, so the translators substituted other words.

Translator Jennifer Wheeler gave one example of a word important to the movie that couldn’t be easily replaced in Diné. “Droid” is a technological word, and there’s no word for it in Diné.  So the translation for “droid” might be “the short metal thing that’s alive.” That makes talking about R2-D2 and C3P0 a mouthful!

Dubbing is the process of putting new voice sounds in place of the original voices in the movie. In dubbed movies the movements of the actor’s lips don’t match the words viewers hear. The original words also limit the amount of time you have to say things. The Navajo translators had to make some changes so that the Diné words matched the movements of the actors’ lips a little better.

The dubbing process was easiest for the battle scenes where there’s a lot of action. When the action is intense, viewers are not focused on the actors’ lips the way they are in a quieter scene. Darth Vader was also easy to dub because his mask hides his lips.

Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, had the great idea to use Star Wars to help preserve Diné. And it seems to be working. Young people at the first viewing of the film told James Junes, the Navajo actor who dubbed Han Solo’s part, that they planned to speak more Diné now that they had watched the movie.

What movie would you choose to help preserve an ancient language?