A blog for fans of Bananagrams, word games, puzzles, and amazing things

Saturday, August 29, 2009

History of anagrams: Anagrams as encryption

Galileo was a professor in Padua, Italy, studying physics and mathematics, when he heard about the sudden development of telescopes in Holland. Guessing at how they worked, he created his own in 1609 and began promoting it for the monitoring of ships by merchants. Galileo Galilei
By the fall, he began using it for astronomical observations. He designed a series of successively better telescopes, giving him the ability to discern smaller details of the night sky than anyone before him. This opened up a gold rush of scientific exploration. Galileo was able to make astronomical discoveries very fast, but such discoveries could sometimes take months or years to verify, which left him with a dilemma: If he announced his discovery immediately, he could eventually turn out to have made a mistake; if he waited, one of his competitors might find the same thing and get the credit. Galileo's solution (and possibly one already in use by other scientists) was to write a short description of his findings, rearrange the letters, and distribute the coded version. In that way, he could reveal his conclusions at any time in the future.

In 1610, he sent letters to his fellow scientists, containing the following string of letters:
Fellow astronomer, Johannes Kepler Portrait of Johannes Kepler from 1610 anagrammed very hard and came up with this solution:
Salve umbistineum geminatum Martia proles.
which translates to "Be greeted, double knob, offspring of Mars", and which Kepler interpreted to mean that Galileo had discovered that Mars has two moons, something that Kepler had predicted. But it turned out that Kepler's anagram was not the one that Galileo had had in mind. Allegedy the Holy Roman Emperor became interested in Galilelo's finding, and so Galileo finally revealed the actual original sentence to be
Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi.
which translates roughly to "I have observed the most distant of planets (Saturn) to have a triple form" (where U and V are treated as interchangeable in Latin). Galileo thought that he had observed two moons orbiting Saturn. He was wrong, as Huygens showed in 1656 that what Galileo had seen was actually a ring around Saturn. Huygens wrote an anagram about this, too.

In December of 1610, Galileo made an even bigger discovery which he transmitted as a true anagram:
Haec immatura a me iam frustra leguntur oy.
which, translated, means roughly "This was already tried by me in vain prematurely". Kepler pleaded with him to reveal what he had found, and so in January, Galileo replied with the unanagrammed sentence:
Cynthiae figuras aemulatur Mater Amorum.
Translation: "The Mother of Loves [Venus] imitates the figures of Cynthia [the Moon]." by which Galileo meant that Venus cycles through phases, just like the Moon. He had observed that Venus is not a light source - it simply reflects light from the Sun. And from the way it waxed and waned like the Moon, he could tell that Venus was orbiting the Sun. At a time when many held that everything revolved around the Earth, this was an amazing result.

In the 1670s, Robert Hooke was studying the physics of springs. He found that when you stretch a spring, the force that it pulls back with is proportional to the distance that you pull it. This came to be known as Hooke's Law. Hooke encrypted this in a popular way among scientists of the time: He simply alphabetized the letters and got "ceiiinosssttuv". The unscrambled version is "Ut tensio sic vis." which he revealed a few years later to mean "As the extension, so the force.".

Hooke held on to another discovery much longer. In 1671, he announced to the Royal Society of London (a group of scientists, dedicated to advancing scientific knowledge) that he had figured out what the optimal shape for the arch of a bridge was. Four years later, he published the encoded form of his conclusion:
The true Mathematical and Mechanichal form of all manner of Arches for Building with the true butmenet necessary to each of them. A Problem which no Architectonick Writher hath ever yet attempted, much less performed. abcccddeeeeeefggiiiiiiii-illmmmmnnnnnooprrsssttttttuuuuuuuux. The unanagrammed form was not revealed until after he died in 1703(!). It read "As hangs a flexible cable, so inverted, stand the touching pieces of an arch." which means that if you hang a chain between two poles, you get a special curve called a catenary, and if you turn it upside down, this is the best shape for supporting a bridge.

I am guessing that the practice of anagramming conclusions in this way gradually disappeared as more formal publication methods were developed (the earliest probably being the journals published by the Royal Society of London starting in 1665).

In a way, this kind of encryption was not so different from the seeking of metaphysical truth through anagramming (as covered in a previous post), except that the scientists were deliberately putting the distilled form of the truth on the other end of the anagram and letting people search for it.

For more background on Galileo and his anagrams, you can read http://www.mathpages.com/home/kmath151.htm.

For more about Hooke's law and his caternary findings, see: http://www.lindahall.org/events_exhib/exhibit/exhibits/civil/design.shtml.

And for a fictionalized account of 17th century science and the development of the Royal Society (among other things), try Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

An event for people who love puzzles

[DASH Logo]
A very unique event is happening in a couple of weeks: On September 13th, a puzzle hunt (a series of puzzles, spread around a particular area) will be simulcast to a bunch of different cities, including: Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, DC. The hunt is called DASH which stands for Different Area, Same Hunt. This is entirely run by volunteers and is an effort to expand the puzzle hunt community beyond its current ecological niches in the Bay Area and Seattle.

It will not be all words games, but if you are good at Bananagrams and like puzzles, you might enjoy it. If the sample puzzles appeal to you, I would encourage you to get together a few friends and give it a try.

UPDATE: DASH 2 is happening April 24, 2010.
2011 UPDATE: DASH 3 takes place April 30, 2011.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

History of anagrams: Anagrams as prophecy

One half of the Bananagrams family tree was sketched out in this post which basically covered the inheritance of traits from crossword puzzles by way of Scrabble. But the inventor of Scrabble had another influence beyond word games that arranged words in intersecting columns and rows: An emphasis on anagramming. So, I've dug into the historical roots of anagrams. Here is some of what I have found:

While evidence from the time of the Greeks is spotty, it is thought that Pythagoras and his Pythagoreans may have been rearranging the letters of words in the 6th century B.C., as they believed that anagramming someone's name could reveal information about their destiny. Later, in 332 B.C., Alexander the Great was in the midst of a six-month siege of the city of Tyre, when one night he had a nightmare about a satyr trying to catch him. He asked his soothsayers about it, and they noted that in Greek the word for "satyr" anagrams to "Tyre is thine.". The next day, Alexander finally captured Tyre.

From a very insightful book called The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life by Marcel Danesi:
Soothsayer status was, in fact, often attained by those who claimed to possess knowledge of anagrams. In the third century B.C., for instance, the Greek poet and prophet Lycophron made a profession of devising anagrams of the names of the members of the Hellenistic king Ptolemy II's court in Egypt, as a basis for divining each persons' character and destiny. For this he became widely known and sought out as a soothsayer.
After the time of the Romans, there is little evidence of anagram use until its resurgence in the Middle Ages. As most educated people were associated with the Church, most anagrams from that era relate to religion and are in Latin. The most popular example is this imagined exchange between Pontius Pilate and Jesus:

Pilate: Quid est veritas? ("What is truth?")

Jesus: Est vir qui adest. ("It is the man before you.")

I have to admit, it would be really cool to answer somebody with an anagram of their own question.

The Kabbalists were mystics from the Middle Ages for whom anangramming held particular importance. To understand their interest in manipulating letters and numbers, it helps to know a bit about the ancient Hebrew language.

Ancient Hebrew did not have a separate system for numbers, so the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were used instead. This led to numerology (adding up the numerical values of letters in a word, and regarding the sum as significant to the word). Ancient Hebrew also did not have a conventional alphabet; it had an "abjad" which is a writing system where vowels are not written, but inferred by the reader. This made anagramming much easier. (Just imagine how much easier it would be to play Bananagrams if you could use "NRG" for "energy", "GRN" for "green", and "RNG" for "ring"!)

For the Kabbalists, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet held special powers. They developed a wide variety of rule-based systems for transforming one word into another. Some, like Atbash, were simple substitution cyphers (A->Z, B->Y, C->X,...). Temurah (the Hebrew word for "permutation") was the Kabbalistic art of anagramming. The Kabbalists believed that through such manipulation of names and verses in the Torah, they could uncover fundamental knowledge about the universe. They wore anagrams on amulets which they believed protected them from evil (a practice common among many others in the ancient world)

My guess is that if they had had the opportunity to play, the Kabbalists would have been Bananagrams maniacs.

More anagramming history, coming in a future post.

[Meta] A new domain name

I have set up this blog with its own domain name: bananagrammer.com. It's still hosted on Blogspot for now, so the old URLs should still all work. Specifically, if you use an URL that looks like bananagrammer.blogspot.com, Blogger will automatically forward it to www.bananagrammer.com.

If you are subscribed to the feed, you might have to change the feed URL. Or you can just delete the old one and resubscribe through the new feed.

For the moment, everything else is the same as it was, but in the future, I will have the flexibility to try out things that do not fit neatly into a blog post.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

So I played the online version of Bananagrams...

I finally played the Facebook version of Bananagrams. (I suspect that the other versions (Bebo and MySpace) are basically the same.) It is a Flash application with a colorful interface and sound effects.

At first I trained on "Solo Cafe", a timed solitaire game where all the letters were revealed at the beginning. The first game I got an easy set of letters and was basically struggling with the mouse controls. I then played a few more games, doing a bit worse. Finally I was able to beat my initial time (by about 50%), so I figured maybe I was ready to try playing against live opponents.

I was faced with a screen showing many games in progress and one that was waiting for enough players to start. I clicked on the "waiting" one, which may have been a mistake because as soon as it came up on my screen the game started. I think there were four other people in the game at the beginning. I didn't have much time to look at what was going on in the sidebar (where you can see pictures of your opponents and very tiny depictions of their live grids). I did notice when one guy exited the game as there was some kind of brief pop-up notification. (Seeing the grids and remaining letters of one's opponents in a heads-up display would be a nice option for meatspace Bananagrams.) I was the first to finish with all of my letters, but then I realized that the game wasn't over. (Playing Solo Cafe had acclimated me to not peeling.) So I clicked on the pile of tiles in the upper left corner to start peeling. About five peels in, other players caught up. As my surplus letters piled up, I found a way to form them into words, and so I was the last to peel, leaving just two tiles in the bunch. I found a place for the last tile and clicked on the just-materialized banana icon in triumph.

The challenge is adjusting to the mouse control. As far as I can tell, there is no keyboard control. You can click on the letter you want and drag the tile to where you want it. You can also select many tiles by clicking on the table and dragging to form a selection rectangle.

You can then drag the group of tiles together. Also, immediately after selection a circle with a curved arrow in it appears near the group of letters. If you click on the circle, the group of tiles will rotate 90 degrees clockwise, like this:

Once learned, these tools would be useful when major grid-restructuring is necessary. Elite online Bananagrams players are probably separated by subtle mastery of the interface and selection/rotation tricks.

I can imagine that implementing the controls differently would make the game much easier. Imagine, for instance, that you click with the mouse where you want to place a letter and then type the letter that you want there. And then if you type the next letter in the word, it should automatically be placed, too.

From posts about surveys on gameplay, I suspect that the interface will be improving in the future. Aside from the interface issues, online Bananagrams resembles offline Bananagrams in one important regard: it is a addictive and quite fun.

Further reading: You might also enjoy reading my review of an online speed Scrabble game.

Also: tips on how to improve your Bananagrams performance and the longest word that you can make in Bananagrams.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Bananagrams is coming in new languages and for new platforms

A recent news article gives an overview of Bananagrams and describes many recent developments. Among the subtler changes, they now list as one of the official Bananagrams variations (like Banana Solitaire and Cafe), "Banana Challenge", which is just regular Bananagrams with the no-two-letter-words rule. In addition to the existing English and Spanish versions, Bananagrams translations are being developed for French, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Hebrew. Board games are apparently big among Israelis:
...Bananagrams is popular with Hasidic Jews because they are unable to use numbers on the Sabbath. Since the game only utilizes letters, they can play without violating the Sabbath.
The article goes on to say that electronic versions of Bananagrams are in the works for the Wii, the Playstation, and "Gamebox" (which I am taking to be a mistaken transcription of either Game Boy or Xbox).

I'm very curious to see what the Wii interface for Bananagrams will be like.

UPDATE: French, Norwegian, German, and Italian Bananagrams are now available in their respective countries.

And (at last) you can buy the French version of Bananagrams through Amazon in the U.S.!:

I just learned that the Norwegian edition of Bananagrams has a product page on Amazon. But sadly, it is listed as "currently unavailable". Apparently, the additional Norwegian letters are Æ, Ø and Å.

Hebrew Bananagrams is still not available... For now, the closest approximation would be buying one of these kind of expensive Hebrew Scrabble sets and playing almost-Hebrew-Bananagrams. Shalom!
And Hebrew Bananagrams is now available, too.