Monday, May 16, 2011

Keys (Tasti vecchio)

In media and life, I've seen a coincidental confluence in the past few months of keys, both the physical kind that you might open a lock with and more abstract kinds. My brother misplaced his car keys, I generated an encryption keyset for a business client, then took a quick try at decrypting a note (published by the FBI) that was found in a dead guy's pocket (I was not successful, hah). The acting mayor of Dallas got into trouble for giving Michael Vick the 'key to the city' which I cartoonishly imagine as an enormous gilded key with a big 'D' on the end. But, I've never seen it and really think it's probably just a disappointing piece of paper with 'Key advice' on it. I guess there hasn't been anything in the news about Panama or the canal (also having locks). What kind of locks am I forgetting?

To take us in what I'm sure is a completely unexpected direction... the Romans made physical keys out of bronze and improved the Egyptian designs by replacing wooden components with metals. Of course, I guess if the Romans made keys out of cotton candy, there wouldn't be much evidence of it now... Keys and locks made in the shops back then were pretty much unique works of art as they didn't have ANSI standards back then.

Here is a photo I took in Arles, France a few years back of keys found in that area.

Also, from Aqueilia Italy, a relief sculpture of a Roman locksmith's grave showing him at work.

The ancients also had the abstract notion of logical keys (and encryption). The historian Suetonius wrote of an ancient shift cypher that Julius Caeser used to encrypt messages. The idea was just to replace an alphabetic letter with another letter farther down the alphabetical sequence. Thousands of years ago, it was good enough to guard important state secrets. Now comically, the acronym for the encryption is 'ROT-n', (rotten, as in 'not good' hehe).

Anyway, puns aside, the best encryption schemes I've seen involve combinations of modulus functions (remainders) which accomplishes compression and encryption at the same time, but for prearranged lengths of data in the overall stream to be encrypted.

If I needed to encrypt something, I'd be too paranoid to use RSABase because it's prime number based, and I think NSA has skeleton key for that (decrypts all).
It's probably best to do your own cryptography from scratch and only share it with those you want to receive your message.

For good reading on keys and locks in ancient times, check out


  1. What an interesting read. can ALSO encrypt! I loved your comment about the auction. Do they really charge that much for mosaic classes?

  2. I like how there is a key to key identification in the museum exhibit. That'd be a key attraction.

    Also, I think it would be much more sophis if Mayors went all Holiday Inn and gave the worthy a plastic key-card to the city, one where the lights only worked if you stuck it in the slot.

  3. Mosaicology,
    :) Thanks, I was worried that even overview details of cryptography would send people to sleep immediately. Ah, the mosaic classes aren't expensive (especially Luciana), but the Euro has gone higher to the dollar, and airfares are going up, and I was just whining about the higher prices in general (but I will still go, of course).

    The Jules,
    What a coincidence you say that, I just put 2d barcode keys on little museum-like plaques around my house under purchased artworks so visitors can scan with iPhones / Droids, really. If you are key-en to see it, I'll send a photo.

  4. Tex, that last one looked just like the key to my chastity belt! :)

    I like keys. I make art with them. It's art to ME anyway....

  5. Cool!

    Do you just print them out with the info you want on them?

    And have you got an on your household appliances, saying "Microwave, 2008 model, with solidified bolognese sauce representing the futility of human existence in an uncaring, post-9/11 world. £900"

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