5 Lessons from Decoding of Zodiac Killer “340 Character Ciphers”

And it has nothing to do with your coding ability

A team of code-breakers has solved a cipher attributed to the Zodiac Killer.

David Oranchak, a US-based software developer, Sam Blake, a mathematician based in Australia, and Jarl Van Eycke, a programmer based in Belgium, managed to crack Z340, a 340-character cipher that’s one of four such codes attributed to the Zodiac Killer.

The Zodiac Killer was an unidentified serial killer believed to have killed at least five people in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’60s and was known for sending cryptic messages to law enforcement and journalists.

The decoding of the zodiac ciphers by the trio of amateur math and software codebreakers is a reminder that you need not have the best brains at your disposal to solve a mystery.  At times, the intent and perseverance combined with the right set of tools can get you the desired result.

So the next time, if you find yourself in the midst of a complex challenge, let yourself remind of these 5 lessons worth Learning and emulating from Decoding of Zodiac Killer “340 Ciphers.”

1. It’s never too late to find a solution, not even after half a century

The challenge of solving a seemingly impossible problem presents an opportunity to push the limits of your perceived boundaries.

The 340- Character Ciphers eluded the best minds of crypto coders for more than half a century. But that never discouraged the trio of amateurs from giving their best shot at it.

If any of you’re really serious about finding solutions, there is no dearth of problems troubling humanity — numerous long-lasting problems are always looking for innovative solutions, from eradicating malnutrition to addressing poverty and climate change, the list is long.

If you try to do your best there is no failure — Mike Farrell

2. Collaborate to crack something that might look impossible

At times, even the best brains find it difficult to do get things done on their own. And when it involves finding a solution for a seemingly challenging problem, it’s always better to have access to a team with whom you could bounce off your likely solutions.

The diversity in experience and background often brings a fresh perspective in looking at the same problem. When you’re not obsessed with finding a solution on your own and taking credit for it, you can learn to focus more on accommodating divergent views.

“It is amazing how much people can get done if they do not worry about who gets the credit.” — Sandra Swinney

3. Accommodate the possible error in the interpretation

At times we get so engrossed in finding solutions that we forget the possibility of having an error in interpretation. While decoding the ciphers, just when the trio was close to finding a solution, they hit a wall, where the consistency in the applied logic was still eluding them.

After running through every possibility, the team finally entertained the thought of having errors in the original message. And once they start working on finding the errors, they could locate the four errors in a single row.  With a slight modification in the placement of the ciphers’ position, the logic finally started making sense for the entire message.

Normally while struggling with a problem, we refrain from entertaining the thought of having errors in our problem statement, making our job that much more difficult. Therefore once in a while, it makes sense to entertain them to rule out any possibility.

It is almost as difficult to make a man unlearn his errors as his knowledge — Charles Caleb Colton

4. Be humble to accept your mistakes

Mistakes are an inevitable part of finding solutions but difficult to accept, especially when working in a team. If not identified and accepted on time, mistakes can put your team on a completely wrong path.

Therefore once in a while, it’s prudent to deliberately look for mistakes by revisiting all our rules and presumptions.

A few months back, when we were working to find a solution in Jaro-Winkler, our team could not find an efficient way to arrive at the probable solution. We tried everything we could think of, but the solution we were looking for kept eluding us. Then someone in our team thought of involving a separate team to bring a fresh perspective. Despite reservations within the team, we went ahead and had a meeting with them. While explaining the problem statement to the other team. we stumble upon an epiphany to revisit a couple of our assumptions. And as soon as we revisited those assumptions, we were able to locate our mistakes.

But despite knowing this, we have this aversion towards questioning our presumptions, especially when we fear we might be proven wrong.

If you want to grow, you need to get over any fear you have of making mistakes.” — John C. Maxwell

5. Keep experimenting with multiple layers of rules till you reach within striking distance of the solution

As human beings, we generally prefer the path of least resistance. Due to this preference, we end up short-selling ourselves to the first few solutions that come to our mind.

And therein lies the problem. We become so obsessed with rules and presumptions, we stop experimenting with possibilities. We refrain ourselves from redrawing the entire board with a new set of rules. But like any other habit, it’s an acquired thing that takes a lot of practice to execute.

Try things against your grain to find out just what your grain really is — Irwin Greenberg

Closing Thoughts

Life has its own way of throwing us into situations that may demand ingenuity in our response. At times, the challenges might seem insurmountable, but that doesn’t mean we start doubting our capabilities. Because sometimes, problems don’t require a solution to solve them; what they require instead is the maturity to outgrow them.

The 340 ciphers proved a whole lot harder to crack, but finally, it was solved in 2020 thanks to Dave Oranchak, Sam Blake, Jarl Van Eycke, and all the others who have contributed to this project over many years. In case you’re interested in understanding the process involved in decoding the ciphers, you can have a look at their YouTube video.

Thanks for Reading.

Originally published on Medium.

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