The biggest cipher news of the week (apart from learning that David Hamer’s splendid M4 4-rotor Kreigsmarine Enigma s/n M7772 is to be sold by Sotheby’s New York on 12th December 2017) is a sad story concerning Dalek operator (and Whovian columnist ‘The Watcher’) Nicholas Pegg (not to be confused with perennial voice-of-the-Daleks Nicholas Briggs) and hidden writing.
“What are these words? Explain! Explain!“
As you can see from the string of highlighted letters above, the hidden message says simply: “Panini and BBC Worldwide are cunts”. Unsurprisingly, Pegg has had his contract (ex)terminated, and will no doubt find himself on the next shuttle to the Dalek Asylum planet, where the BBC puts all its dissidents.
Order of the Boot
Another recent BBC leaver was James May, who also has a hidden message story. As features editor on magazine Autocar, he once inserted the following (fairly innocent) message one letter at a time into the headers of the (riveting-sounding) 1992 Autocar Special Road Test Yearbook Issue.
“So you think it’s really good, yeah? You should try making the bloody thing up. It’s a real pain in the arse.”
For his sterling efforts, May quickly received the Order of the Boot (or Order of the Trunk, as Americans like to call it).
Bungled Fond Farewell
Another less obvious departure letter was by Mark Dunning, the headmaster of Orley Farm prep school in Harrow, as summed up (fairly glibly, it has to be said) by Matthew Norman in the Telegraph.
Dunning, in an end of term newsletter, wrote (of the departing teacher Roger Clark): “We all now know every really great teacher has to finish one day and Mr Clark will do so at the end of this term”, i.e.
When Clark raised this with the school governors, they took a dim cryptanalytical view of the affair, and requested that Dunning should also depart. Oh well.
Incidentally, a separate Telegraph piece noted that “[f]ormer pupils of the school include Anthony Horowitz, the novelist, who has been critical of his “unbelievably brutal” time there in the 1960s.”
Historically, though, Dunning’s arguably-less-than-completely-fond farewell was dwarfed by the 1949 poem (thanks to Mental Floss) composed on the occasion of Gordon Macdonald (the last Governor of Newfoundland), and printed in the Newfoundland Evening Telegram two days after his departure:
The prayers of countless thousands sent
Heavenwards to speed thy safe return,
Ennobled as thou art with duty well performed,
Bringing peace, security and joy
Among the peoples of this New Found Land.
So saddened and depressed until your presence
Taught us discern and help decide what’s best for
All on whom fortune had not smiled.
Remember if you will the kindness and the love
Devotion and the respect that we the people have for Thee
More recently, the American political class – largely enraged by Trump’s extensive rhetoric against them – has carried out all manner of political steganography. There’s RESIST (added by the seventeen members of Donald Trump’s arts council) that Klaus posted about earlier this year, and IMPEACH (science envoy Daniel Kammen’s parting shot), following Trump’s response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville VA).
But in many ways, these are mere ghostly wraiths: for as far as political steganography goes, the real deal is none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, affectionately referred to by TechCrunch as the “Governator”. His 2009 letter vetoing Assembly Bill 1176 stands as a classic of the genre:
According to the Huffington Post:
“My goodness. What a coincidence,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear. “I suppose when you do so many vetoes, something like this is bound to happen.”
Which, of course, triggered a near-googolplex of mathematical posts calculating the (dwindlingly small) probability, leading to the whole affair being included in Princeton University’s stats lecture notes (Hint: to do this properly, you’d need word-initial letter distribution statistics, rather than =POWER(1/26, 7) )
You may also remember this (c.f. Troy McClure) from the famous Montreal gravestone:
…which also brings to mind the fake gravestone laid by PETA in ‘tribute’ to Harland Sanders…
Finally: there’s one further category of steganography, where writers conceal anti-government messages in their writings. Of course, poets have concealed messages in poems for centuries (if not millennia), but here I’m talking about something quite on the next level.
Jose F. Lacaba wrote a poem called “Prometheus Unbound” that was published in an entirely mainstream publication: when people in the government realised that the initial letters spelled out the phrase “MARCOS HITLER! DIKTADOR TUTA!” (a common rally chant widely graffitied in the 1970s) that Lacaba was jailed for being a dissident. (He was only let out when the same regime tried to give an award to “golden boy” Nick Joaquin: Joaquin would only accept it in return for Lacaba’s freedom.)
When I found the actual poem here, it was a pleasing coincidence that its final word is RESIST:
Mars shall glow tonight,
Artemis is out of sight.
Rust in the twilight sky
Colors a bloodshot eye,
Or shall I say that dust
Sunders the sleep of just?
Hold fast to the gift of fire!
I am rage! I am wrath! I am ire!
The vulture sits on my rock,
Licks at the chains that mock
Reeks of death, death, death.
Death shall not unclench me.
I am earth, wind and sea!
Kisses bestow on the brave
That defy the damp of grave
And strike the chill hand of
Death with the flaming sword of love.
Orion stirs. The vulture
Retreats from the hard, pure
Thrust of the spark that burns,
Unbounds, departs, returns
To pluck out of death’s fist
A god who dared to resist.