Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Codes from a Sixth Grade Spy

Samuel F. B. Morse's name rings a bell back in a textbook of American history as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code, the means of high-tech communication in his day. His invention allowed the transfer of data via pulses or tones in on/off series of dashes and dots corresponding to letters of the alphabet or numbers. Letter-by-letter messages were sent to faraway places without a pony or rider ferrying the missive. This virtual express mail debuted in 1844.

"SOS" may be the most familiar message with simple letters: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. Every school child knew how to peck out that distress signal. The tapping tempo was something like, "There she was, she was walking down the street, singing doo-wah-diddy-diddy-dum-diddy-do," for the uninitiated. There was no short cut, no predictive texting. This process was labor intensive, but the thrill of a code was worth it.

And for those of us who loved secret codes, the tantalizing concept of writing messages in lemon juice, then holding a flame below the paper to make the letters appear as brown 'ink' made us virtual CIA agents living sixth grade lives of intrigue and espionage. We saved Blue Horse notebook paper points to redeem for prizes and neat spy gear, but invariably settled for the little logo beanie instead: a blue felt tribute to immediate gratification.

The Cold War was hot then, and we believed it to be a matter of near-national security to be vigilant and prepared by conversing in codes. The Honey West Club and the Man From U.N.C.L.E. Club were my training grounds for spy-readiness. Still, I am fascinated by means of communication we use. Today's instant transmission of voluminous data is impressive.

In retrospect, Samuel Morse's two element system of dits and dahs (or dots and dashes) was quite revolutionary. And lest we consider him merely a primitive figure of history and his code assigning each letter a symbol an ancient relic in a high tech world, remember another development in our time.

The binary code in our computers is a language using only two symbols: 1 and 0. Each letter and number is assigned a combination of 1's or 0's (bits) transmitted in on/off pulses. Sound familiar? The SOS bit sequence, for example, is 01010011, 01001111, 01010011. Hmmmmm. Morse's dots and dashes seem a bit more advanced than I had previously thought.

When we need help, we do not write SOS as a lengthy string of 1's and 0's. We do not have to; the language is doing it for us while we are expressing our words. It is built into the programming to translate the code, if you will, whether we are aware of it or not. Even the most evolved languages and codes for transmitting information can be comprised of the simplest building blocks. What can be simpler than 0 and 1? The most elementary combinations can be the most effective.

The words I AM come to mind. A fundamental building block of our language and many languages is the first person, present tense of the verb to be. This three-letter sentence can be a building block of faith as well.

This profoundly simple answer to Moses' question of God still echoes through the ages. I accept this transmission over thousands of years as instructive.

"I AM," the LORD God spoke of the Divine's mysterious name. Perhaps that answer was as unexpected as a dot or dash.

Just, I AM, or also translated, I AM THAT I AM. These words still confound some who want to de-code the mystery.

Our linguistic utterances are skeletal means of encoding a small portion of information. We hang so much information on our words, and we ask them to bear more meaning than some can carry well. Some words come pre-loaded with baggage we do not intend. It is not a perfect system, but our language serves as an effective shorthand for broader meaning.

I believe that this name of God expresses beautifully the Person and the Presence of God. I AM may lay the foundation for our understanding of God as Emmanuel, God with us. It also provides meaning and context for the seven I AM sayings of Christ in the Gospel of John.

Though we may acknowledge that we cannot fully know the ineffable mind and heart of God and Christ, we can continue to savor scripture's authoritative transmission to us - bit by bit. And when the distress signals sound above the chaos in our lives, may we know where to turn for help. SOS is as near as our next breath.

 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 
 fill me with life anew, 
 that I may love what thou dost love, 
 and do what thou wouldst do. 

 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 
 until my heart is pure, 
 until with thee I will one will, 
 to do and to endure. 

 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 
 till I am wholly thine,  
till all this earthly part of me 
 glows with thy fire divine. 

 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 
 so shall I never die, 
 but live with thee the perfect life 
 of thine eternity. 

Text: Edwin Hatch, 1835-1889

Music: Robert Jackson, 1842-1914 
This hymn's writers were actually living during the time of Samuel Morse....interesting.

Bonus question: Grade school tests used to ask students, "what were the first words transmitted over the telegraph?"

"What hath God wrought?" from Samuel Morse on May 24, 1844, a reference to Numbers 23:23

1 comment:

  1. how interesting! you are just a wealth of cool facts and stories. i loved the part about being a 6th grade spy :)