Bletchley Park and Code-Breaking
In August 1938, a group of men showed up to a Victorian Gothic mansion in the town of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. It was a couple of weeks after the Glorious Twelfth, the start of hunting season in England. Ten bucks say they were all wearing tweed knickers and jolly caps, but that’s beside the point.
They said they were part of a shooting party, ready to fire hundreds of shells at wild birds. But, in reality, they were scholars turned code-breakers who’d come to evaluate the estate as a wartime location for intelligence activity. They were members of the Government Code and Cypher School, and, their journey into the English countryside would not prove in vain.
Bletchley Park went on to play a vital role in World War II. It employed 10,000 people involved in gathering military intelligence. Among the workers were pattern recognition experts who cracked enemy codes and helped bring an early end to the war.
Some say the information age was born at Bletchley Park, home to the world’s first electronic computer, Colossus.
And, colossal have been the changes brought about by the ensuing Digital Age. Every day, existing power structures fade a little more and at times, the world seems more uncertain than ever.
And, yet within these changing fortune of time, it has never been easier to know and understand yourself. We can capture enormous amounts of data by using technology to track the things we do, with whom we do them; how often, where and when. We can become our own personal pattern recognition experts by quantifying our lives.
Laurie Frick and Cracking the Code
The artist Laurie Frick who has a background in engineering knows a lot about this. She has an exhibit on display Contemporary Oklahoma on the state fairgrounds that should pique your curiosity about your own daily routine.
Laurie tracks everything about herself — steps walked, calories expended, her weight, sleep patterns, time spent online, GPS location, daily mood, and food intake.
She uses gadgets, websites and smartphone apps in this self-imposed surveillance, and then she transfers the data to wall size patterns that are fun and colorful to see. They include technical, laser-cut drawings on thick watercolor paper. The cuts are suspended like mobiles under soft pink, green and yellow lights.
The walls that reflect her moods are my favorite. She uses laminate countertop samples and assigns different colors to different emotions. The pattern that emerges is dark or vibrant around the edges and light or muted in the middle. It all represents a way of seeing ourselves — knowing ourselves better.
So, once we document and examine our history, recent or otherwise, we can stop letting the past construct the present. We can stop living in fear and stop repeating the same mistakes. We can gather and analyze our data and decipher our own lives. In time you can crack the code of your life. You can stop fighting that ridiculous war – whatever it might be.
I became really interested in pattern recognition after watching the PBS drama Bletchley Circle. The mystery series is set in 1952 and features four women who worked as pattern recognition experts and codebreakers at Bletchley Park during the war. They pool their codebreaking skills to find a serial killer in London. It’s a great show and is now available on DVD.