Sunday, August 19, 2007

Flashed any good books lately?

OK, we can talk to girls or we can decode flashing lights. Duh!--Silicon Valley, where I lived for 20 years, is a seriously weird place, filled with seriously strange people, and I enjoyed it very much. Once in a while, a story pops up that explains everything. Or not.

Last year, the city of San Jose, the capital of the valley, ran a Digital Art festival. You can work that out for yourself, but one of the displays was four glowing amber discs on top of the Adobe building (as in Adobe Acrobat). The lights were flashing a semaphore signal. The discs would light in sequences that never appeared to repeat, clearly a code. But for what?

Enter two classic geeks, Bob Mayo and Mark Snesrud. They had time on their hands and engineers cannot resist puzzles. Both were taking a seminar on “communication skills,” which means learning how to pick up girls. (I am not making any of this up. One of the features of Silicon Valley that intrigued me is that given the choice between deciphering a good piece of code and getting laid, the code wins every time. Keep reading.)

The two guys could see the disks spinning from a bar they frequented. They noted that each disk changed every 7.2 seconds. But what the hell was it trying to say? Geeks never read manuals, so first Mayo, who lost his job at Hewlett-Packard and apparently had a load of free time, photographed hours’ worth of spinning disks from a nearby parking garage to record the pattern. They then considered setting up a radio receiver to pick up electromagnetic transmissions from the disks. Then they found out that if they just went to the project’s website, they would have saved themselves the trouble. The website had the sequences.

First they tried to match the semaphore signals to ASCI code, the language most computers use to code text. They discovered that certain patterns matched passages from James Joyce’s Ulysses. [It’s not clear which of them knew enough of Joyce to figure that out but apparently at least one had a liberal arts education, or could use Google].

Then, spending months using pattern recognition software, they found certain odd words ["Dominus" and "calumet," to name two], which they then Googled, only to discover that all came from the same source: Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49. The semaphore signals from the Abobe tower were the text of the 1966 novel, which is set in the Valley and is about code. The disks took months to go through the 800 paragraphs.

The artist who designed the work, Ben Rubin, was pleased the mystery was solved.
What did the two get for all that work? The admiration of their peers. It’s the Valley, after all.

If you want to know the details, click here, and thanks to John Murrell at

Oh yeah. Snesrud now has a girl friend.

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