Wednesday 28 December 2016

Cheltenham Ladies College

The Boy has lived in England these last several years and spends a chunk of his leisure time solving puzzles.  Crosswords, and logic puzzles, rebuses for the kids and jigsaw puzzles if there is nothing else to keep the neurons firing 'upstairs'. At the beginning of the month, I asked Mr Bezos to send the family a copy of the GCHQ Puzzle Book. It looked like something that would keep them amused over the holiday. Well dang me if they didn't send me a copy of the same book - we must love each other very much.  It's 300+ pages long, so you either have to pace yourself or act like your life depended on it. The latter clearly isn't the case, so the first option is better. It is all too easy to say "Dunno, haven't a clue, don't make me no difference" and move on to the next problem. That way you could flit flit over the surface of the book and pop out the other end without having learned a thing. The only satisfaction is that you've had to work your mind to play the game, working the mind actually burns calories, so it is an antidote to Christmas over-eating without having to leave the sofa.

The nature of puzzle-book book-puzzles is that you are unlikely to learn anything except about the mindset and cultural background of the puzzle setter. I suggested two years ago that the deviser of Times Jumbo Crosswords was essentially a clone of me, so it was easy to get his drift. And that's where the don't care kicks in: I don't want to get inside the mind of some knob who works in GCHQ. There are 5,000 people on the payroll of the Government Communications Headquarters and most of them work in The Doughnut [R], a modern building complex that looks like a plumper, rounder and smaller version of The Pentagon outside Washington. The Doughnut is located on the outskirts of a market town in the West of England called Cheltenham Spa. I had a very expensive education of the sort that could have gotten me recruited by GCHQ if I'd been smarter and more focused and talked to the right people rather than writing terrible poetry and talking to nobody through my teenage years.

Today is the 66th birthday of Clifford Cocks, FRS. He was working at GCHQ in 1973 [aged 23] when he had a shattering insight about the difficulty of factoring the product of two large prime numbers . . . unless you knew what those prime-numbers were in the first place. The only way to find the factors of such a large number is to use a brute-force approach and work through all possible integers that are smaller than the square root of the large number. In 1973, the most expensive computers in the world were about as powerful as the computer in the high-end toaster which your nerdy partner gave you last Christmas, so you could use this insight to encrypt a message. Anyway, nobody at GCHQ was able to implement any useful outcome from Dr Cocks' academic insight about effectively unfactorisable numbers; so the idea just sat in their archives. 4 years later, three quants from MIT Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman independently discovered exactly the same idea and published it as the RSA algorithm. Secure encryption of sensitive data is the key on which depends half the purchases in the run-up to Christmas; including my paying Amazon to deliver the GCHQ Puzzle Book to The Boy last week.

In the forward to the GCHQPB, Kate Windsor, aka the Duchess of Cambridge, notes that her grandmother, Valerie Glassborow and her great-aunt Mary Glassborow, worked in Bletchley Park in the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS): the predecessor of GCHQ during WWII. Bletchley Park is where Alan Turing [prev and prevlier] and his pals cracked the Enigma code to win a significant intelligence advantage coup over the Germans. See The Imitation Game starring Benedict "Sherlock" Cummerbund and Keira "Pirates" Nicely. The connexion between the Duchess and the Cryptanalysist is not so extraordinary. If the GCHQ authors were looking for a celeb to help launch their book and if The Duchess connexion hadn't been available, then there were 10,000 previous employees at Bletchley or its outstations who might have left well-connected descendants.

They might have asked me for example, if I was even vaguely a celeb. I was talking to my mother earlier in the year and she revealed that for one of her postings in the Auxiliary Territorial Service ATS = Women's Army during WWII, she washed up working in a barn in Earl's Croome a hamlet near Tewkesbury in the English Midlands. She was required to carry out calculations with a team of other women. Operating on a strict need-to-know basis, she and her pals hadn't a clue what they were working on but carried out their tasks as fast and as accurately as they possibly could. Once a day, a personable young Lieutenant would turn up with a briefcase and swap their previous day's work for a new set of problems. The Mother is now of the opinion that the young chap came up from Bletchley. It's a bit late to ask anyone for verification of this hypothesis because, at 96, my Mum is almost the last logarithm-girl standing. It's a bit late to find this out: if had she told me this in 1965 then my enhanced street-cred might have spared me a couple of weeks of having my head flushed down the toilet at Dotheboys Hall.

Jul Purygraunz Ynqvrf Pbyyrtr? Orpnhfr vg vf gur fbeg bs srr-cnlvat fpubby gung freirf nf n erpehvgvat tebhaq sbe TPUD npebff gbja.

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