A mashup of San Jose Semaphore, shown in different positions. (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)
f you’ve walked past Adobe’s corporate headquarters in downtown San Jose, you may have spotted them: four big orange LED lights that look like flat-head screws, turning in apparently random patterns.
This week’s Bay Curious question comes from listener Geoff Morgan, who wanted to know:
What do the turning wheels on the top of the Adobe building mean?
To start with, it helps to know Adobe makes computer software for people who work with words, pictures and sound.
“At the core of our DNA, really, is art and technology,” says Siri Lackovic, the company’s senior brand strategist.
That’s why you’ll find clever art installations all over their office towers.
Siri is one of the two people on the planet who know the whole story behind the glowing orange orbs Geoff noticed. The other person, of course, is the guy who came up with the concept, New York artist Ben Rubin.
“The hope is that someone would look up and say: ‘What is that?’ ” Ben says. “What is that thing trying to say, you know? What is its message?”
The name of this installation is San Jose Semaphore.
“Semaphore, by definition, is really a form of visual communication,” Siri explains.
Way back when, the only way to communicate surreptitiously over a short distance — say, from land to a ship — would be to rely on flag bearers.
“They would hold up the flag, and depending on the position of the flag, would let them know if it was safe to come in, or better to stay put,” she says.
This resonates with Geoff, the KQED listener who asked the question.
“I actually was in the Navy, and so I remember people communicating with flags, and it was always interesting to me because it looked very official, but a lot of times, they were talking about the latest baseball scores from ship to ship and things like that,” he says.
So, the short story on San Jose Semaphore is that it’s an art installation. The long story stretches back to artist Ben Rubin’s childhood in Boston during the 1970s. Back then, he owned a Heathkit shortwave radio. Sometimes, when he turned it on, he’d hear the strangest things.
“These sort of clicks and beeps and mechanized announcements,” Ben says. “Who could not listen to an encrypted message and not wonder what it says, you know?”
As NPR reported in a 2000 feature for the “Lost and Found Sound” series, these were numbers stations, shortwave radio broadcasts that historians believe transmitted messages to spies stationed around the world, starting in World War I.
To the average listener, the letters, numbers and songs broadcast on the stations sound random. But if you have the key to decode the gobbledygook — it’s a message.
Ben was fascinated by these numbers stations. So when it came time for college, he got a bachelor’s degree in computer science and semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. After graduation, he starting making art inspired by his studies. Now he makes media installations using technology, sound, images and physical structures — like the piece on the top of Adobe’s building in San Jose.
Silicon Valley Loves A Challenge
Each of these orange discs can assume four positions: horizontal, left-leaning diagonal, vertical, right-leaning diagonal. Four positions, plus four discs, means there are 256 possible combinations.
Every 7.2 seconds, those wheels turn to a new configuration of sort of positions. Then they rest.
“When they’re in that resting position, that actually is a word or a letter,” Siri says.
For those of us who think with our ears better than with our eyes, Ben made an audio version of the code that plays on Adobe’s website. Here’s a sample …
Using just the audio alone, you could solve the code.
“Somebody could,” Siri says. “I don’t know if I could have guessed that, but yes.”
I don’t know about you, but this seems way too complicated for a person of average intelligence to crack. In fact, the technology Ben Rubin is using is a variation on state-of-the-art World War II cryptography.
Back then, it did take a genius to figure out: Alan Turing, a pioneer of modern-day computing and the subject of that movie, “The Imitation Game.”
In World War II, the Germans developed something called “the enigma machine,” a diabolical typewriter with several rotating discs in the back. Every time you pressed, say, an “a,” a different letter popped up on the paper. Totally confusing. The messages are almost impossible to crack, unless you also have an enigma machine, and directions so that your rotating discs are set up the exact same way they are at headquarters.
Because Some of You Are Seriously Curious
Now, with San Jose Semaphore, Ben isn’t using an enigma machine, and neither are you. So he has to include the key to decode the message in the transmission. Periodically, the discs will flash a line, which, when decoded, says something like this:
It always begins with “Start message transmission.” And then three numbers. And then a word. This is followed by chunks of text that make no sense unless you realize that the “start message” line is actually a header — a key — with the information necessary to decode the paragraph that follows.
“Just the way that the German enigma operators needed, at the beginning of each day, to establish certain settings in the machine,” Ben says.
Also, just for fun, Ben added another confusing element, inspired by the fact planes headed to and from San Jose International Airport fly incessantly over downtown. Every time an airplane passes close by Adobe’s office towers, the orange discs spin wildly for a bit, before returning to their regularly scheduled programming.
But as complicated as all of this sounds, the code was cracked within a month of installation by Bob Mayo and Mark Snesrud, two scientists who were in town for a conference. They spotted the semaphore and became obsessed. They wrote an entire scientific paper explaining how they broke the code. The first sentence they decoded was …
“The beginning of that performance was clear enough.”
All they had to do then was plug that sentence in to Google, and presto: It’s a line from Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49.”
“It’s a novel that [Pynchon] wrote in the late ’60s that’s set in a kind of proto-Silicon Valley part of California,” Ben says.
The message was the entire book, from end to end, which took about three months to transmit.
“I was both impressed and disappointed that it had fallen so quickly,” Ben laughs.
So he came up with a second code (a tougher code!) that hasn’t been cracked in four years.
“We get a lot of, ‘I think it says: Buy Adobe products,’ ” Siri says.
“I think ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ was probably the funniest one,” she says.
Nope, it’s not that either.
Honestly, folks: If the first code was “The Crying of Lot 49,” the second code is not going to be so obvious.
“You want to know who knows what the code is?” Siri teases. “Only two people in the world — the artist and then one other person.”
No, she won’t give it up. But she does drop a hint.
“It doesn’t need to be a book. It could just be a series of words put together.”
Is our listener, Geoff, going to try to crack the code?
“I’m going to leave that to greater minds than me. But I can’t wait to see who cracks it. I think this will be great,” he laughs.