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The Psychology of Code-Breaking: 100-Year-Old Insight from Cryptography Pioneers William and Elizebeth Friedman

“Deciphering is both a science and an art… In no other science are the rules and principles so little followed and so often broken; and in no other art is the part played by reasoning and logic so great.”

The Psychology of Code-Breaking: 100-Year-Old Insight from Cryptography Pioneers William and Elizebeth Friedman

“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message,” the mathematician, philosopher, and cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener wrote in his landmark treatise on communication, control, and the morality of our machines. We are patterned messages, and we make and exchange patterned messages in order to describe, understand, and navigate what we are and world in which we are — this may be the defining feature of what makes us human. Ursula K. Le Guin captured this in her splendid meditation on the magic of human communication: “Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”

But there is a special class of messages designed with a dual purpose — to feed and amplify understanding for some, while muddling and muffling it for others: cryptography, or the art-science of encoding and decoding secret messages. The mind capable of making codes, but especially the mind capable of breaking them, is one endowed with a singular combination of skills and dispositions that illuminate the nature of creativity itself.

Elizebeth Friedman, circa 1940s, with her handwritten cryptanalysis.

One such mind belonged to Elizebeth Friedman (August 26, 1892–October 31, 1980) — the cryptography pioneer who helped defeat the Nazis with pencil, paper, and perseverance, and the heroine of Jason Fagone’s excellent book The Woman Who Smashed Codes (public library). Friedman worked closely with her husband, William, as the two laid the groundwork of contemporary cryptography. Along the way, they authored a number of papers designed to train government personnel in code-breaking, but brimming with broader insight into the qualities of mind and character that make this uncommonly difficult and creative endeavor possible.

Their insight into the art-science of code-breaking survives in a 1918 paper titled “An Introduction to Methods for the Solution of Ciphers,” composed by both Friedmans but published only under William’s name, like the vast majority of their joint work and even some of Elizebeth’s solo papers. Theirs, lest we forget, was an era long predating “the invention of women.”

Elizebeth and William Friedman, circa 1920s (The George C. Marshall Foundation)

The Friedmans write:

Deciphering is both a science and an art. It is a science because certain definite laws and principles have been established which pertain to it; it is also an art because of the large part played in it by imagination, skill, and experience. Yet it may be said that in no other science are the rules and principles so little followed and so often broken; and in no other art is the part played by reasoning and logic so great.

The work of deciphering, they argue, is the work of induction — applying generalized principles to a particular problem at hand, which requires that the code-breaker rest upon a set of assumptions. But this fundamental blindspot of inductive thinking is counterbalanced by unparalleled vistas of imagination, enlisting the same combinatorial faculty that governs all creative work. The Friedmans consider this uncommon marriage of logic and intuition at the heart of code-breaking:

If the special conditions of the problem approximate or conform closely to the generalized principles, the solution readily follows. But this is rarely the case, and [the decipherer] is forced to modify, not only his assumptions, but also his methods, and even to discard some of them. It is the facility and ease with which a decipherer is able to modify his methods and discard his assumptions, which differentiates the good decipherer from the poor one. Deciphering is not a process for a “one-cylinder mind.”

Likewise the part played by imagination and intuition can hardly be overestimated. The knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the interception of a message, of the correspondents, etc., furnishes a wide field for the exercise of the intuitive powers; and a shrewd “guess” will often result in more progress than a whole day’s painstaking labor. This faculty, so essential in deciphering, can be developed and trained. The exercise of the imaginative powers by attempting to assume whole words, given only two or three letters and their positions, will result in the stimulation of all the faculties concerned in the expression of ideas, will thus enlarge the decipherer’s vocabulary, and otherwise arouse those qualities of mind which are peculiarly needed in cipher work.

But the most crucial element of successful code-breaking is the same defining feature of success in any creative or intellectual endeavor: doggedness. Four decades after Tchaikovsky composed his timeless case for the supremacy of work ethic over inspiration, the Friedmans write:

Persistency is absolutely necessary for deciphering. Results are often secured only after seemingly endless experiment, and concentrated effort. It may be said that even after one has a thorough grasp of the underlying principles, patience and perseverance are the key-notes to success.

A graphic frequency table from the Friedmans’ paper, depicting “a short and systematic way” of counting all the different letters in a particular message.

Echoing Lewis Carroll — “When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on,” the brilliant logician and Alice in Wonderland author had counseled in his three tips on overcoming creative block — they issue a vital caveat that applies to all creative problem-solving:

Yet, too long application soon results in mental exhaustion, and in such a condition little progress can be made. The decipherer will actually save time by ceasing from his labors and attacking the problem afresh later. A few minutes of work by a rested and clear mind is worth as many hours by a brain which is dull from fatigue.

The Friedmans summarize the essential components of the code-breaking mindset:

The qualities upon which success depends in deciphering are interrelated — reasoning from laws must be balanced with facility in modifying those laws; imagination must go hand in hand with discretion; and intuition can never wholly take the place of concentration and perseverance. Finally, let it not be forgotten that many times the greatest ally the mind has is that indefinable, intangible something, which we would forever pursue if we could — luck.

One of Alice and Martin Provensen’s lovely vintage illustrations for classic fairy tales.

In his biography of Elizebeth Friedman, Fagone offers a kindred summation of the code-breaker’s essential character traits:

This is the essence of codebreaking, finding patterns, and because it’s such a basic human function, codebreakers have always emerged from unexpected places. They pop up from strange corners. Codebreakers tend to be oddballs, outsiders. The most important trait is not pure math skill but a deeper ability to pay attention. Monks, librarians, linguists, pianists and flutists, diplomats, scribes, postal clerks, astrologers, alchemists, players of games, lotharios, revolutionaries in coffee shops, kings and queens: these are the ones who built the field across the centuries and pushed the boundaries forward, stubborn individuals with a lot of time to sit and think and not give up.

Complement with a wonderful, forgotten 1957 treatise on how intuition and imagination fuel scientific discovery, then revisit Nietzsche on how we use language — ordinary, uncoded language — to both reveal and conceal reality.


Against Common Sense: Vladimir Nabokov on the Wellspring of Wonder and Why the Belief in Goodness Is a Moral Obligation

“This capacity to wonder at trifles — no matter the imminent peril — these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

Against Common Sense: Vladimir Nabokov on the Wellspring of Wonder and Why the Belief in Goodness Is a Moral Obligation

“Once we leave those domains of human experience, there’s no reason to expect the laws of nature to continue to obey our expectations, since our expectations are dependent on a limited set of experiences,” Carl Sagan observed in considering how common sense blinds us to the reality of the universe. Perhaps worse yet — worse than the wrong beliefs we held for millennia about our planet’s shape, motion, and position in the cosmos, just because it feels flat and steady beneath our feet and is the center of everything we know — common sense often blinds us to the reality of our own interior world. It impoverishes our experience of the uncommonest, most delicate, most beautiful aspects of being and leads us, as I wrote in the prelude to Figuring, to mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves.

How to lift the blinders of common sense that unfit us for seeing wonder is what Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) explores with uncommon wisdom, wit, and splendor of sentiment in a lecture he delivered at Wellesley College in 1941, titled “The Art of Literature and Commonsense” and later included in the superb posthumous 1980 volume Lectures on Literature (public library).

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov writes:

In the fall of 1811 Noah Webster, working steadily through the C’s, defined commonsense as “good sound ordinary sense . . . free from emotional bias or intellectual subtlety… horse sense.” This is rather a flattering view of the creature, for the biography of commonsense makes nasty reading. Commonsense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth; commonsense has back-kicked dirt at the loveliest of queer paintings because a blue tree seemed madness to its well-meaning hoof; commonsense has prompted ugly but strong nations to crush their fair but frail neighbors the moment a gap in history offered a chance that it would have been ridiculous not to exploit. Commonsense is fundamentally immoral, for the natural morals of mankind are as irrational as the magic rites that they evolved since the immemorial dimness of time. Commonsense at its worst is sense made common, and so everything is comfortably cheapened by its touch. Commonsense is square whereas all the most essential visions and values of life are beautifully round, as round as the universe or the eyes of a child at its first circus show.

This “sense made common” is, of course, the seedbed of so many of our social and civilizational biases — from the dogmatic geocentrism that nearly cost Galileo his life to the mindless majority rule against which James Baldwin so fervently admonished. It is the seedbed, therefore, of conformity and thus the enemy of a society’s progress, which presupposes that we rise above the common lot of beliefs and mores to imagine the uncommon, the alternative — an act so countercultural that, throughout history, those who have dared undertake it have been punished or ostracized. Kierkegaard knew this when he contemplated why we conform and asserted that “truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.” Ben Shahn knew it when he observed in his fantastic Norton lectures at Harvard that “without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay.”

With an eye to the innumerable offenses against sanity and justice perpetrated by an unquestioning adherence to so-called common sense, Nabokov adds:

It is instructive to think that there is not a single person in this room, or for that matter in any room in the world, who, at some nicely chosen point in historical space-time would not be put to death there and then, here and now, by a commonsensical majority in righteous rage. The color of one’s creed, neckties, eyes, thoughts, manners, speech, is sure to meet somewhere in time or space with a fatal objection from a mob that hates that particular tone. And the more brilliant, the more unusual the man, the nearer he is to the stake. Stranger always rhymes with danger. The meek prophet, the enchanter in his cave, the indignant artist, the nonconforming little schoolboy, all share in the same sacred danger. And this being so, let us bless them, let us bless the freak; for in the natural evolution of things, the ape would perhaps never have become man had not a freak appeared in the family. Anybody whose mind is proud enough not to breed true, secretly carries a bomb at the back of his brain; and so I suggest, just for the fun of the thing, taking that private bomb and carefully dropping it upon the model city of commonsense. In the brilliant light of the ensuing explosion many curious things will appear; our rarer senses will supplant for a brief spell the dominant vulgarian that squeezes Sinbad’s neck in the catch-as-catch-can match between the adopted self and the inner one. I am triumphantly mixing metaphors because that is exactly what they are intended for when they follow the course of their secret connections — which from a writer’s point of view is the first positive result of the defeat of commonsense.

But there is a second, deeper consequence of defeating common sense. A century after Walt Whitman extolled optimism as our mightiest resistance against the corruptions of society, Nabokov frames optimism not as a luxury of privilege but as an imperative of survival. He writes:

The second result is that the irrational belief in the goodness of man… becomes something much more than the wobbly basis of idealistic philosophies. It becomes a solid and iridescent truth. This means that goodness becomes a central and tangible part of one’s world, which world at first sight seems hard to identify with the modern one of newspaper editors and other bright pessimists, who will tell you that it is, mildly speaking, illogical to applaud the supremacy of good at a time when something called the police state, or communism, is trying to turn the globe into five million square miles of terror, stupidity, and barbed wire. And they may add that it is one thing to beam at one’s private universe in the snuggest nook of an unshelled and well-fed country and quite another to try and keep sane among crashing buildings in the roaring and whining night. But within the emphatically and unshakably illogical world which I am advertising as a home for the spirit, war gods are unreal not because they are conveniently remote in physical space from the reality of a reading lamp and the solidity of a fountain pen, but because I cannot imagine (and that is saying a good deal) such circumstances as might impinge upon the lovely and lovable world which quietly persists, whereas I can very well imagine that my fellow dreamers, thousands of whom roam the earth, keep to these same irrational and divine standards during the darkest and most dazzling hours of physical danger, pain, dust, death.

Vladimir Nabokov as a child (Nabokov Museum)

Nabokov locates the antipode of common sense in “the supremacy of the detail over the general, of the part that is more alive than the whole, of the little thing which a man observes and greets with a friendly nod of the spirit while the crowd around him is being driven by some common impulse to some common goal.” Speaking at the peak of WWII, as John Steinbeck is writing on the other side of the continent that “all the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” Nabokov offers:

I take my hat off to the hero who dashes into a burning house and saves his neighbor’s child; but I shake his hand if he has risked squandering a precious five seconds to find and save, together with the child, its favorite toy. I remember a cartoon depicting a chimney sweep falling from the roof of a tall building and noticing on the way that a sign-board had one word spelled wrong, and wondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles — no matter the imminent peril — these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.

In the remainder of this piece from his altogether magnificent Lectures on Literature, Nabokov goes on to explore how the rejection of common sense factors into the creative process and the two types of inspiration. For more of his abiding insight into art and life, see Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, what makes a good reader, and the six short stories everyone ought to read, then revisit his exquisite love letters to Véra.


Ursula K. Le Guin on Suffering and Getting to the Other Side of Pain

“All you have is what you are, and what you give.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Suffering and Getting to the Other Side of Pain

Simone Weil considered it the highest existential discipline to “make use of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us.” George Bernard Shaw saw suffering as our supreme conduit to empathy. “We suffer more in imagination than in reality,” Seneca observed before offering his millennia-old, timeless antidote to anxiety. And yet we do suffer and the pain incurred, whatever the suffering is grounded in, is real. How we orient ourselves to our suffering — or to the suffering, as Buddhist might correct the ego-illusion and reaffirm our shared reality — may be the single most significant predictor of our happiness, wellbeing, and capacity for joy. “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve,” C.S. Lewis wrote in contemplating how suffering confers agency upon life, “and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

That indelible relationship between suffering and life is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores throughout The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (public library) — the superb 1974 novel, part science fiction and part philosophy, that gave us Le Guin’s insight into time, loyalty, and the root of human responsibility.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Based on photograph by Benjamin Reed)

The novel’s protagonist — the idealistic prodigy physicist Shevek, visiting a beautiful earth-like world from a society inhabiting the world’s barren moon, where a colony had seceded long ago, disenchanted with the profiteering and “propertarian” values of an increasingly materialistic and selfish human society — channels Le Guin’s philosophical insight into the paradoxes of existence and the pitfalls of human society:

Suffering is a misunderstanding.


It exists… It’s real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years… And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding — this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain… If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could… get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self—ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality — the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness — that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.

Defining freedom as “that recognition of each person’s solitude which alone transcends it,” Le Guin pits her idealistic protagonist against an imperfect society, which he addresses in a public speech at the climax of the novel — a speech he delivers before an enormous crowd of his fellow antiauthoritarian socialists, who have taken to the streets in furious desperation in the face of growing privation and inequity on the beautiful but corrupt Earth-like world:

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

In the privacy of his mind, spawned of Le Guin’s own mind, Shevek reflects on the central paradox of suffering:

If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will not know what it is to come home… Fulfillment… is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal… It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell… The thing about working with time, instead of against it, …is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

The Dispossessed is a thoroughly magnificent read, exploring themes of staggeringly timely resonance to our socially confused and politically troubled world. Complement this particular fragment with the brilliant and underappreciated Rebecca West on survival and the redemption of suffering, then revisit Le Guin on poetry and science, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, and her classic unsexing of gender.


Patti Smith Sings “The Tyger” and Reflects on William Blake’s Transcendent Legacy as a Guiding Sun in the Cosmos of Creativity

“The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence… William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein… He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation.”

Patti Smith Sings “The Tyger” and Reflects on William Blake’s Transcendent Legacy as a Guiding Sun in the Cosmos of Creativity

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,” William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) wrote in his most beautiful letter — a soaring defense of the imagination. A genius both tragic and transcendent, Blake was among humanity’s deepest and farthest seers — of truth, of beauty, of the universe in a grain of sand, of the human condition in a fly. His poetry and art went on to influence generations of creators as varied as Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who built his own singular sensibility upon a Blakean foundation, to Allen Ginsberg, who so cherished Blake that he recorded a strange and wonderful LP singing Blake’s Songs of Innocence with an electric orchestra.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

But no artist in our time, and possibly none in all of time, has been a more spirited exponent of Blake’s enduring genius than Patti Smith.

Smith discovered Blake as a girl, after her mother purchased for her at a church bazaar a handsome 1927 edition of his Songs of Innocence, faithful to the 1789 original, which Blake printed and illuminated himself. Mesmerized by the exquisite marriage of text and image, the young Patti spent hours deciphering Blake’s calligraphy and absorbing every detail of his rich, sensitive illustrations. She returned to him again and again throughout her life, holding him up as consolation for the strife of struggling artists and eventually honoring him in a song. When her dear friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg fell mortally ill, she fetched a volume of Blake bound in blood-red leather from his library — a copy in which, she recalls, “each poem was deeply annotated in Allen’s hand, just as Blake had annotated Milton” — and read it by his dying bedside.

In 2007, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth, Smith edited a selection of his verses simply titled Poems (public library) — “a bit of Blake, designed as a bedside companion or to accompany a walk in the countryside, to sit beneath a shady tree and discover a portal into his visionary and musical experience.” She channels her reverence for the eternal artist into the uncommonly poetic prose of her introduction:

The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence. A newborn cries as the cord is severed, seeming to extinguish memory of the miraculous. Thus we are condemned to stagger rootless upon the earth in search for our fingerprint on the cosmos.

William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein. The celestial source stayed bright within him, the casts of heaven moving freely in his sightline. He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation; offering songs of social injustice, the sexual potency of nature, and the blessedness of the lamb. The multiple aspects of woven love.

His angels entreat, drawing him through the natural aspects of their kingdom into the womb of prophecy. He dips his ladle into the spring of inspiration, the flux of creation.


He is a messenger and a god himself. Deliverer, receptacle and fount.

Smith ends her introduction with a splendid invitation, or perhaps an incantation:

William Blake felt that all men possessed visionary power… He did not jealously guard his vision; he shared it through his work and called upon us to animate the creative spirit within us.


To take on Blake is not to be alone.
Walk with him. William Blake writes “all is holy.”
That includes the book you are holding and the hand that holds it.

The plate Blake himself drew, lettered, and printed in the original edition of Songs of Innocence

In this recording from a 2011 benefit concert for the Wadsworth Atheneum accompanying the opening of her exhibition at the museum, Smith tells the story of the notebook in which Blake wrote some of his most beautiful poetry — a little black sketchbook that belonged to his brother Robert, whose death devastated William — and she sings his iconic poem “The Tyger,” as it appeared in Blake’s original manuscript from the small notebook held at the British Library:

Complement with Smith on the two kinds of masterpieces and the crucial difference between writing poetry and songwriting, then revisit Esperanza Spalding’s performance of Blake’s existential poem “The Fly” and the brilliant, underappreciated Alfred Kazin on Blake and the tragic genius of outsiderdom.


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