Challenges From a Ciphered Goat


Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

TODAY WAS FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!! A bunch of us were really worried yesterday about how today’s class would go with out big class project, but it went really well actually!

First we walked in and were allowed to pick where we wanted to sit which was different from the usually changing seating chart. I think getting to choose where we sit was helpful because then we could all sit by people we know wouldn’t frustrate us when working on challenging material. The truth is that some heads just work together better than others and things work best when everyone works with someone that they can work with well.

Then we were given a summary of what we already knew one more time: we were going to try and crack a Vigenere cipher with only knowing the mod and the cipher text which we knew would eventually be some riddle that we would then have to answer. Then from then on it was up to us to figure out what to do.

Not so surprisingly I guess, I was a leader from the start. I had already talked to a few others about my idea yesterday so at this point I just needed the class quite enough to explain it to everyone at once. So right when our instructor let us on our own, I stood up and described a plan I had come up with to productively divid and concur to “guess and check” (brute force attack as we say) possibilities until we narrowed down to what the first part of the key was.

The process and other steps would be hard to explain if you don’t know much about the cipher which I don’t think is all that important to go into, so the point being we were actually working productively as a team!

We joke that only at Nerd Camp would kids be begging to stay in class rather than go outside for break, and it’s so true! Yesterday we had the same situation where we had the choice of two lessons and you would listen to one lesson and go outside for the other, but most of us wanted to stay for both and we were told we had to go outside to break. Today something similar happened where we all wanted to keep working to crack the code and even after going outside it was on our minds.

For this entire week during break we have been tossing around a few frisbees. Early on in the week we used it as a name game, then we decided by the end of the week our goal would be to actually play ultimate frisbee. Well yesterday this goal was finally achieved and we taught everyone how to play and since then have played during every break. A lot of us during our debriefing session after the code challenge agreed that we think playing ultimate frisbee really helped us with working as a team. I think that’s pretty cool because it goes to show how important skills aren’t always developed in the class room. Sometimes getting out of the class and just having fun is where important social skills like communication and collaboration in this case can really develop and benefit work in the class room too.

We got back in side after the break and kept working strong. Funny thing was that we actually had the correct key up on the board for a while based off of what various groups thought could be a “likely key” (the reasoning involved a bunch of math which again doesn’t really need to be described). It just took a little for someone to finally try using all of those keys on the board together and sure enough our first guess actually worked!!!!

We all burst into cheer and starting celebrating because we found a key that worked for at least the first few words in the cipher so it should work for the rest. We actually had to stop and remind each other that we weren’t done yet because we had to finish translating the entire thing, but we were so happy it was hard to stay calm.

We were getting close to lunch time, but we didn’t even care and told our TA and instructor that we were all willing to be late to lunch because at this point we NEEDED TO FINISH!  After a little ways in a few people were able to guess that the riddle was about the game show with a goat and a car in 2 of the three doors and the question was about if you should switch doors or not and you use probability to decide. We still had to finish translating though and when we finally did you would have thought it was just New Years we were so happy!

There was a short debate on the answer to the riddle, but I finally just said, “I don’t even care if we get the goat instead of the car. I’m just happy we just broke that code!” We submitted our final answer and were right on that too!!

AND WE FINISHED BEFORE LUNCH!!!!!!!!!! This was really important to the huge celebration because that meant we finished in just under 3 hours and it took the class before us 4 and a half hours to completely decipher the text. (Nerds are very competitive as I’ve observed on many situations.)

At lunch a bunch of us sat together and most of us agreed this was our favorite class yet. We at first dreaded it because we were worried we wouldn’t work well together, but I think that worry actually helped us all realize how important it was that we needed to prove everyone wrong and pull it together. No one believed we would finish before lunch; our TA and instructor even said they thought it would take us much longer and didn’t know what to expect today.

Some people may say they could never work on one math problem for 3 hours, but it was precisely because it took us so long to solve that it made it so much better when we did solve it. And it was so much more productive because we worked as a team. After wards we all high-fived and took a picture in this goofy pose that is the end to this dance thing one guy in our class does all of the time. This was significant because most of us have been confused with why he always does is and have thought it was weird and occasionally annoying, but he was the one to try the key first and we were all so happy and “teamy” that we didn’t care and wanted to take the photo anyway.

The challenge not only improved our skills as cryptologist, but it also brought our class much closer together. Not having help from a teacher also always makes you feel more accomplished because we did it all on our own which is encouraging. That’s why today was just so amazing!!!!!!!


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