Traffic Analysis


(The Enigma plug-board, courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The more I’ve been paying attention to my dreams and recording them every morning by the time I get up, the more I typically remember from them. Usually, but not always, though what I do remember, even if it’s just a fragment, does tend to be more vivid.

I’ve been trying to be equally tenacious about learning to interpret those dreams, but I’ve had  somewhat less success there. Recognizing subtlety has never been a strength of mine, and apparently this is the case when it comes to dream symbolism too. My friend Alexandra, who has been patiently listening to me talking about my dreams and fragments on a daily basis, has had much better luck figuring out certain symbols and settings.

In other words, metaphorically but no less daunting for all that, I felt like I’d hit my first wall.

Then a few nights ago I happened to be around a TV set to the Smithsonian Channel (and is this a good time to say that I don’t believe in coincidences?) when it started showing a documentary called The Codebreaker Who Hacked Hitler. This was about Gordon Welchman, one of the leaders of the British World War II codebreakers headquartered at Bletchly Park, and the fellow who established Hut 6, the headquarters of the men and women working to break the German army and air force’s Enigma codes. Even most WWII enthusiasts haven’t heard of Welchman (or at least hadn’t before the documentary debuted last year) – I hadn’t, as much of an enthusiast as I am. This isn’t just because he hasn’t gotten his own movie like Turing did, but because he released a book in the early 80s titled The Hut Six Story: Breaking the Enigma Codes. The American and U.K. intelligence communities decided the book committed multiple violations of secrecy acts, and spent the last three years of Welchman’s life trying to ruin him and bury his memory. (They did an excellent job of both.)

Welchman realized that the way the Enigma code machine was set up, the total number of possible code combinations came to 15,000,000,000,000,000,000. That’s not a typo. Fifteen quintillion combinations, or about twice as many as the estimated number of grains of sand on the entire planet.

A wee bit daunting.

But he didn’t stay daunted for long because he had a brilliant flash of insight: He realized that the opening of each message identified the sender. So instead of trying to crack the seemingly impenetrable code, he went about doing what he called “traffic analysis” – what nowadays we call metadata analysis. This was comprised of all the so-called external information about the messages: who was sending, where they were, who they were sending to, how often they were sending, and so on.

This was real solid information, Welchman wrote in The Hut Six Story. Could we use it?

He then starts to explain his method: Getting to the point of asking myself this question was Step 1. Having reached this starting point, I proceeded to think, largely by chance, about indicators in which the same letter would appear in places 1 and 4, or 2 and 5, or 3 and 6. …

As it happened, the Hut 6 codebreakers went for quite a long time without being able to break the code. But by using Welchman’s methods for traffic analysis, they were in fact able to guess troop locations, troop strength, future military movements – even that the German army was about to surround the British army in France in 1940 while it was in the process of doing so, just courtesy of the amount and locations of chatter, giving the Brits enough time to evacuate 300,000 men at Dunkirk.

Again, all done without ever being able to translate more than a word or short phrase from any Enigma message.

I watched the rest of the documentary, fascinated. But something was also nagging at me the whole time. Then as the show was about to wrap up it finally hit me: Could I use this idea for analyzing my dreams too?

I’m not a mathematician by any stretch of the imagination. But what I am is super detail-oriented. What if I used the idea of traffic analysis to figure out what my dreams were trying to tell me, or at least the general thrust of them?

How often am I seeing dogs? What else is happening in the dream? Do I see one or multiple dogs? If multiple, how many? When was the last time I saw that same number in a dream? What’s the setting? What people are with them? Are these fragments I’m remembering or whole dreams? Are they in a dream early in the morning or last thing before I get up for the day? What color are they? What type of fur?

And so on. I could do that with any dream element, quantifying them in multiple ways if not immediately figuring them out. If that works, I might then be able to get an idea of what they’re aiming for without technically figuring out a single symbol.

Alexandra also introduced me to an app that may be perfect for this too, if I’m able to use it. If I can’t use it for whatever reason, there are always spreadsheets.

This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t want to figure out the symbols in my dreams. If nothing else I’m too curious for to let that go, and I really do want to get a much deeper understanding and involvement in what my brain is spending several hours a day trying to get through to me.

In the meantime, though, I feel like I’ve at least scaled a good way up that wall.


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