Monday, September 15, 2014

The Two-Pie Problem: Part Five of The Case of the Lady Slipper Stalker

[This is Part Five of The Case of the Lady Slipper Stalker. See also Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Four-and-a-Half, and Four-and-Three-Quarters, along with Suggestions for My Dear Readers and A Note from Mrs Hudson.]

"You must be joking!" I shouted to the Universe as I looked at my windshield. My loud exclamation brought Ms Ball and Mrs Flaherty to a halt. 

"Whatever is the matter?" asked the kindly but ever-calculating Ms Ball, as she and the highjinks-loving Mrs Flaherty hurried to my car.

"The Stalker has struck again!" I cried, for indeed upon my windshield was yet another item encased in FOUR plastic bags.  I called upon my two companions to be witnesses as I took the photo below and then proceeded to open the parcel.
Another plastic-wrapped gift from the Stalker.
Inside the FOUR plastic bags was a Coloring Book, featuring a broad selection of wildflowers. Look carefully at the photo to the left--you can see a piece of paper, folded in quarters (four would seem to be the Stalker's favorite number). I unfolded the paper to find typed upon it a Coded Message. I must admit I shouted again, and my interjection was one that I must not repeat here. As we peered at the Coded Message, I muttered something about how the Stalker must be familiar with "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," in which Sherlock Holmes deciphers a coded message comprised of stick figures. 

This Coded Message, however, was made up entirely of groups of two-digit numbers separated by dashes. The words, or so I supposed them to be, were arranged into two sentences, for there were two periods. One of the number groups appears twice:  "19 07 04."  
The Coded Message

For some reason I have yet to fathom, the sentences are broken into four lines, rather than extended across the page from margin to margin. It is difficult to determine if there were ten or twelve words, as the number groupings at the ends of the first and third lines could be seen as continuing into the second and fourth lines. There is also no consistency in the number of hyphens making up the dashes between the number groups:  3, 7, 8, 2, 8, 4, 8, and 8. The shortest words are three letters long while the longest are eight to ten letters long. Note also the slight indentation (of one space only) at the start of the third line, which may or may not be intentional. 

Friday evening, I tried various keys to assign letters to these numbers, but to no avail. I thought at first to try a simple key like the ones in the image below, but no luck. Then I thought perhaps the Coloring Book might be the key; after all, they were in the same package--there might be some relationship between the Code and the Book...
Simple number-letter substitutions
Again, I had no luck.  I thought back to "The Adventure of the Dancing Men"; might this story itself be the key? I don't think so. I couldn't make it work. And what am I to make of the double zero at the beginning of the second word? What an enigma! I hope it won't take an enigma machine to crack this code. I fell asleep at my labors, with numbers and letters swimming before my tired eyes...

The Contents of the Coloring Book--no mention 
of the Bottle Gentian, and only one Lady Slipper 
is featured.
I awoke, Dear Readers, early the next morning, determined to clear my head and distract myself for a time from the impossible problem of the Coded Message. I knew of no better way to work the cobwebs from my brain than to bicycle along the beautiful Munger Trail for a few hours. As the Great Detective once said, "A change of work is the best rest" (The Sign of Four).  So I worked my way along the Trail, pedalling doggedly in search of new sights, reading the Book of Nature instead of that ghastly Coded Message! (Let's see who's paying attention: 1 extra point to the first AP Lit student of the class of 2015 who can explain to the world what the "Book of Nature" is.)  
Bottle Gentian:  The Final Flower.
I was hoping to see the Bottle Gentian, which--by the way--is not featured in the Coloring Book. It is a lovely blue flower that blooms during the very last days of Summer--I always think of it as the Final Flower.  I found the Bottle Gentian blooming where I have seen it in the past, and it was a comforting sight. Having seen it, I felt I could say farewell to Summer and begin to welcome Autumn.  
Purple Club Coral in the shadows of the trees.

The beginnings of Autumn are marked also by an abundance of mushrooms along the Trail. I have often said that I discover something new almost every time I explore it, and this time was no different. I happened upon a large patch of purple coral fungus (alloclavaria purpurea) under some conifers. Although I have occasionally seen other kinds of coral mushrooms, I have never seen this kind before. It is sometimes called Purple Tongues or Purple Club Coral. It was exhilarating to find something new. 

In my excitement, I stopped to text a photo of my discovery to
The Text-versation (created with 
Madame Greenan. An interesting text-versation ensued, as you can see to the left. Madame's idea was a good one, I decided, and perhaps worth the risk. The League of Mathematical Scholars might indeed be able to help, and I need all the help I can get. Everyone knows that I am not good with numbers--simple subtraction is often beyond me. 

I remembered, as I continued to take photos of the Club Coral, that the lovely Mrs Birnbaum was once a Math teacher, a Math teacher who also loved to grow flowers and create beautiful flower-arrangements. Surely, one or more Math teachers is involved in this ever-more-complicated conspiracy... [Update: Mrs B contacted me, using the "Send Me a Clue or a Confession!" form in the sidebar to the right; she did not confess, but she said, rather enigmatically, that there was a name missing from the "Vote for Your Favorite Suspect" Poll in the sidebar! I ask you, Dear Readers, is she merely trying to divert suspicion from herself, or is there a suspect out there whom I have overlooked?]

The Giant Puffball, with my admittedly small foot 
for size reference!
As I continued along the Trail, stopping to take photos along the way of other fungi, such as the Giant Puffball you see to the right, I began to torment myself with second thoughts. I pride myself on noticing details, on hunting down the answer to the most perplexing problem, on checking and re-checking all the data at my disposal...Could I have missed something? I stooped under the branches of a small tree to peer at what looked like yet another puffball--sadly, it was merely a partially-submerged golf ball! 
When is a Puffball not a Puffball?
When it's a Golf Ball masquerading 
as a Puffball.

I continued my ruminations: A recent comment from my DNR-intern friend cast suspicion upon Mrs Birnbaum, while another comment from Mr Pearson suggested that Mr Dexheimer might be involved. I was beginning to suspect everyone! I paused, after taking a photo of more Purple Club Coral, to take a bite of the chocolate bar I had brought with me...I often rely upon this divine substance, Nature's gift to humanity, to soothe my troubled mind and stimulate my intellectual faculties. I followed a deer trail down the slope where the colony of Club fungus grew and headed back towards my bicycle, eyes searching the underbrush for more fungi. "--Eureka!" I exclaimed. I had an idea, or at least a thought. 
More Purple Club Coral fungus.

The Purple Club Coral got me thinking about the Twenty-Five Year Club! I have long suspected this Secret Society, with its exclusive membership, to be at the heart of this mystery. One or possibly two of its members have behaved suspiciously. --And hiding behind the cloak of their prestige, they can collaborate to concoct such puzzles as the Coded Message! Why, then, was I working alone?! Did I not have a community from which to draw help and support? --This was clearly a Two-Pie Problem!

Mr Breen and Mr Neblett had been urging the faculty to collaborate, to work together to solve problems and improve the school--this was a perfect opportunity! And my idea would get the Class of 2015 involved as well! After all, we claim to teach our students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers! We encourage them to be creative! Should we not also be so?

Yes, I would approach the League of Mathematical Scholars and ask for their help, despite the risks. I would also challenge the Faculty and Class of 2015 to exchange (1) tips for deciphering the Coded Message or (2) clues to the identity of the Lady Slipper Stalker for pieces of my famous Chocolate Pie

Part of a large colony of Purple Club Coral fungus
on the Munger Trail.
For every such exchange, I would donate $1 to the Twenty-Five Year Club Fund. (I carefully calculated the figures, checking them twice: I would make two pies, each divided into twelve pieces, which would result in a donation of only $24. I resolved that if both pies sold, I would add an extra dollar to make my donation match the name of the prestigious Club, $25.)  Tuesday, October 7th, would be the day when people could collect their pie slices, but I would start collecting tips and clues immediately

Dear Readers, you may use the contact form (in the sidebar to the right) to submit tips and clues--be sure to say you wish to reserve a slice of pie when you do so--or you may speak to me in person.

I started to feel much better--surely, this creative and collaborative strategy would yield results! 


  1. Dear Dr. N,

    Let us assume this is a simple substitution cipher: e.g. A becomes 01, B becomes 02 and so on (as your posted keys assume). The quickest thing to do would be to copy each couplet into an excel spreadsheet. Once that is complete, count the occurrence of each couple using the auto sum function. Cross-reference this with an statistical analysis of the occurrence of each letter in the English alphabet. "E" will obviously be the most frequent. This may get you close enough to begin heuristically deciphering actual words using your command of the English language. Otherwise, there are several algorithms for applying a dictionary comparison with MS Excel. Should I have some documentation one a couple of examples should you wish. I wish you the best of luck in your efforts! Thank you for the 5 improvements to my lunch break!

    Best Regards,
    Bobby Russell, Marshall '02

    1. Hi, Bobby! Thanks for the info! I'm sure some students will find it useful. Glad I could improve your lunch!

    2. Clearly my direction reading (and proof reading - yikes) skills have deteriorated with age. Was I to submit the actual answer? Would it not, then, be posted on your blog for all to see? Alas, pie does not ship well.

    3. Do not put the deciphered message in a comment! Hints only! Unfortunately, the pie would not survive the journey!

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  4. I'd like to claim perhaps two pieces of pie, because I solved the encrypted message, Dr. Nygaard! ;-)

    Hint: You are on the right track with your simple substitutions, but the 00 that stumped you is the key to figuring out where to start (i.e., don't start at 1). I won't write the answer here, so you can enjoy the fun of figuring out what you'd least expect.

    (Before you start, I am not the cryptic-message writer, but I appreciate its message!)

    1. (Oh, and my key clue was the fact that one number combination was repeated twice, which with an English cipher always makes me start with labeling the most-used three-letter combination as "the" and going from there. Here it just happened to work!)

      Please pardon my multiple posts!

  5. Mrs GR can have two pieces, and Mr Mattson has reserved one, so that leaves 21 pieces to go, folks! Remember that you can use the contact form in the sidebar--let's not give things away too much in the comments!

    1. I don't really need two pieces, Dr. Nygaard, so we should leave the second piece for another clue-giver. :)

    2. So noted--let's see if we get enough takers; if not, you can have two!

  6. Obviously, according to the message, you need to widen your field of suspects from the "usual suspects" to the unexpected persons. Any number of persons might fall into the unexpected...let's think of people who either have no homework or are not keeping up with such, thus being able to encode a secret message. As Larry Weber would say, "G'Luck!"
    It ain't me, no, no, it ain't me ain't me you're lookin' for. I would NEVER waste those plastic bags!

    1. Well, I'm not keeping up with MY homework! Larry has crossed my mind, but surely, he's too busy for all this. And rest assured the bags will not be wasted. I will put them to good use, sealing up all the evidence for posterity. I'm sure you wouldn't use brand new bags to leave such lovely gifts on my car, but one of your accomplices might. Hum any tune you like, I'm still waiting for you to sing, sister!

  7. If bags are re-used but clean, I suspect Ms. Ball. If new bags, you should scratch her from the list. My two cents worth.

    1. LJ, the bags are both clean and new, but I'm not sure that's enough to clear her.

  8. For those wondering, the Book of Nature is not actually a book. It is simply a metaphor used for the wonders and mysteries of nature. It is referred to as a book because one should "study" nature for knowledge and understanding.