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Apscitu Puzzle #1

Introducing Apscitu Puzzles

By Duane Thresher, Ph.D.          March 14, 2020

I invented a new kind of puzzle, a crossword puzzle for the digital age, called an Apscitu Puzzle. If you, like myself, are the kind of puzzler who enjoys figuring out puzzles cold, without any hints on how to solve them, then download a PDF of Apscitu Puzzle #1 here and try doing it before reading this article.

I've always liked doing crossword puzzles and codebreaking (cryptanalysis), which require similar smarts. In fact, during World War II British intelligence used a timed crossword puzzle as a test to recruit codebreakers to crack the German Enigma code.

Recently, I was doing a crossword puzzle in a book of New York Times Sunday Crosswords I bought. I was disgusted with that particular crossword puzzle because there were far too many foreign words and obscure names as answers, and far too many unimaginative clues, all signs of a lazy crossword puzzle author. I know this annoys many other puzzlers as well.

I'd also recently reread The Code Book by Simon Singh, whom I met in New York City while I was getting my Ph.D. at Columbia University when the book first came out. The book was useful for understanding encryption, such as that used in Apscitu Mail, but was quite rereadable because it was so fascinating.

I was thus inspired to create a puzzle that combined the most interesting aspect of crossword puzzle solving -- figuring out words from possible letters -- with the most interesting aspect of codebreaking -- figuring out letters from a code.

Digital data -- and nowadays it's all digital data -- is just a stream of binary digits ("bits"), 0's and 1's. The characters (letters, numbers, punctuation) in the digital data have to be encoded as groups of bits (e.g. 8-bit bytes) with each unique combination of bits in the group corresponding to a specific character.

ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) is one of the most well-known ways to encode characters with bits (7). For just the 26 capital letters, plus the space, only 5 bits are necessary (5 bits can encode up to 32 characters). The Legend in an Apscitu Puzzle shows this.

ASCII is well-known so the characters are not really encrypted. However, from my experience as an electrical engineer (I have a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT) I knew that sometimes streamed digital data has noise that causes random missing bits. For important no-repeat messages you might need to figure out what the missing bits are, and thus what the character is ... or could be, which is the crux of the "figuring out letters from the code" part of an Apscitu Puzzle.

Unlike much codebreaking, including popular cryptogram puzzles, in an Apscitu Puzzle knowledge of what one character is does not help you with other characters (except if it helps you figure out a word). This is actually a characteristic of unbreakable codes, like the one-time pad. Consequently, complicated (and boringly mechanical) codebreaking algorithms like frequency analysis won't help much so you won't need to know and use them. Good crossword and pattern matching skills are all that is necessary. This characteristic also makes Apscitu Puzzles harder and more fun than cryptograms because it isn't over until you figure out every message character in order.

Codebreakers use any clues they can find (or steal), particularly known character repetitions. Repetitions were how the British codebreakers broke Enigma (actually Polish codebreakers first broke Enigma). Character repetitions won't help with an Apscitu Puzzle though.

In Apscitu Puzzles, the puzzle title is the biggest clue, albeit a clever one, but reading through the Apscitu, Apscitu Mail, and Stop IT Incompetence websites will also help with most puzzles, as will knowledge of topical IT issues, which the Apscitu websites cover.

When I was a kid doing newspaper crossword puzzles, I would sit and do them with the encyclopedia. I learned a lot from doing that. I would look up a crossword answer in the encyclopedia and then read the whole article. You can think of the Apscitu websites as an IT encyclopedia.

Many Apscitu Puzzle answers will reveal important little-known information, much like real encrypted secret messages, and so give Apscitu Puzzles the same sense of urgency as in wartime codebreaking, unlike most puzzles (particularly cryptograms, with their usual boring old quotes).

Don't be put off by the initial strange appearance of Apscitu Puzzles. You probably had the same reaction when you first saw a Sudoku puzzle -- or even a crossword puzzle, if you can remember first seeing one -- which you now might be addicted to.

Puzzles and puzzle concept are copyright © 2020 by Duane Thresher Ph.D., Apscitu Inc. and may not be used without permission. Email dr.duane.thresher@apscitu.com for solutions.