Mike Agranoff

Blog - 2018

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August 28, 2018
White Pine

Pablo and his chain saw

There was a white pine tree in front of my house, maybe 35 - 40 feet high. Over the past few years it was starting to look kind of sickly, with the lower branches bare, and the needles on the upper branches rather sparse. So I figured it was time to take it down. I called a handyman from the neighborhood named Pablo who does that sort of work, and he came over and had it down and carted away in an hour or two. And it was done. Nothing particularly remarkable. Except for one thing.

I had planted that tree myself from an 18" seedling a few years after I moved into my house.

Was it that long ago? I remember when I planted it thinking that I might like to have an outdoor Christmas tree that I could decorate. And sometime around 2001 it finally was about 6 or 7 feet tall, big enough to use for my intended purpose. So I went out and bought decorations and hung them. But the white pine boughs were too spindly to support their weight, and drooped and sagged. And years later, when the lower boughs were strong enough to decorate, the tree was too tall to reach the top without a ladder, and too weak to safely support a ladder leaning against it. So much for that plan.

Like children, they grow up quickly, and they die. And you never expect them to die before you.

Tempus fugit.

August 1, 2018
Enigma Machine

1. The Enigma Machine

2. The guts of the machine

3. Instructions affixed under the lid

4. Encoding rotors

Click any photo for full-screen view.


I'm a bit of a World War II buff. And one of the more fascinating stories of that conflict is the Enigma Machine.This was a top secret German device that converted text into a virtually unbreakable code. It did so by purely mechanical means, using no electronic circuitry more advanced than batteries, wires, switches, lightbulbs, and electrical contacts that made physical contact with each other as various parts of the machine were made to move. There are dozens of stories concerning the Enigma machine including the Polish Resistance stealing a machine and smuggling it into England, and a German U-boat being forced to the surface by an American destroyer, and a machine, along with all its attendant books of settings for the various decoding procedures retrieved before the sub broke up and sank. And yesterday, I got to see one, open it up, look at the workings, and see how it works.

The father of a friend of mine, Dave Levenson, served in WW II with the Cypher and Coding branch of the Secret Service. He was stationed for a time at Bletchley Park in England where mathematicians and code-breakers gathered to crack the enemy's codes. And at the end of the war, he came home with an original Enigma machine, which he eventually willed to Dave when he died. It's all original except Dave replaced the special batteries that originally operated it with a new battery box with standard C-cells. And it is still in complete working condition! I got a big kick out of seeing it, laying hands on it, and getting the explanation of how it works. And wonder of wonders, its workings are actually quite understandable. And even understanding the workings of the machine would be only a tiny first step in cracking the codes it produces.

The machine has a 26-key QWERTY keyboard, upon which the operator types in a message in clear text, and an output display of 26 lights, which illuminate a different letter whenever a key is pressed. An assistant would copy down the letters as they lit up, which would comprise the encoded message, and which would eventually be transmitted by radio to the intended recipient of the message in Morse code. And here's what determines which letter lights up:

The machine has 3 encoding rotors. Each face of the rotor has 26 electrical contacts arranged in a circle (See photo #4). But internally within the rotor, the contacts on one face are wired to the contacts on the other face by a known scrambled arrangement of wires. For example, contact 1 on the right face might be wired to contact 14 on the left face. And contact 2 wired to contact 8. And so on. So that would be a simple substitution code: The letter A input (1st letter of the alphabet) would result in the letter N output (14th letter). And B would result in H. Etc. A relatively simple code to break.

But here's the tricky part. Every time a key is pressed, the right most rotor is made to rotate one step. So that means each subsequent letter of the text is encoded with a completely different set of substitutions. Then to further complicate the code, the output face of the rotor doesn't go directly to the lightboard. It goes to the middle rotor, with a different scramble of connections. And that middle rotor is made to rotate one step after the first rotor completes its 26th step. And the middle rotor then contacts the left rotor with yet a different scramble of connections between its two faces. The result is that every input letter inputted will be encoded with a different cumulative scramble, and the sequence of scrambles will not begin to repeat until you've entered 26 x 26 x 26 letters. (Something like 254,000,000,000,000 letters).

And it's still not done. After the signal comes out the keyboard it is fed into a the first rotor through a plug board with 26 receptacle pairs. you have the option of plugging patchcords between any pairs of letters, which swaps those letters in the message to be encoded. So, in order to decode the message, you need to not only have the machine, but you need to know which rotors were used, and in which order they were stacked on the machine, and how the patchcords are installed in the plugboard. And the starting position of each of the three rotors.

And the real beauty of the system is that the coding is reciprocal. For an example, if the 193rd letter of the message to be encoded happens to be "A", and it encodes to an "H", then if you type an "H" as the 193rd letter of the coded message, it will result as an "A". So if you set the machine up with the same set of rotors and the same plugboard connections that were used to encode the message, and then type the encoded message into the machine, the resultant output will be the original message decoded!

It is a brilliantly clever design, and most appealing to me because of my mechanical engineering background. And the mechanism that moves the rotors, while simple and easy to understand just by looking at it, produces a code that is fiendishly difficult to break. Thanks, Dave for showing it to me, and letting me play with it.

Postscript: September 13:

I've gotten so many comments on my encounter with the Enigma machine, and been so intriqued with its workings that I decided to add this bit of technical information on how the encoding/decoding process actually works. Why is the coding reciprocal? How come entering the coded message into the Enigma results in the clear text coming out? Well here's the explanation:

No Keys Pressed

This is a simplified schematic of the machine showing only two of the 26 keys and 26 lamps: those for the letters "A" and "H". Each key is connected to a double throw switch. (For those unfamiliar with that term, it means when the key is pressed, it will close one electrical circuit, and when it's released, it will close another. I think that's intuitively represented in the diagram. The NC and NO labels mean Normally Closed and Normally Open. C is Common.) If you follow the circuit, you will see that with no keys pressed, the circuit is open, and no lights will be lit. The circle with the squiggly lines labeled "Encryption Path" represents the convoluted electrical path through all the rotors and all the patch cords. Now that path will be different for every key pressed when encoding the message, due to the fact that the wheels rotate with each keystroke as descibed above. But one thing we know: If we start with a given set of rotors, installed in a given order, set at a given starting point, and all the patch cords are plugged into a known configuration on the plug board, each keystroke will have a unique encryption path. That is the first keystroke will always have a unique encryption path, as will the second, third, and so on. The paths will be different for each keystroke, but they will always be the same for each keystroke in the sequence of the message.

"A" Key Pressed

Now let's suppose the 193rd letter of the message is an "A". So operator presses the "A" key, and that closes a circuit through the switch, through the encryption path, and let's suppose it comes out the other end to the "H" circuit. And that goes through the normally closed contacts of the "H" key, and lights up the "H" lamp. And the operator then writes down "H" for the 193rd letter of the encrypted message.

"H" Key Pressed

The encrypted message gets sent out. And the recipient then goes to decode the message.He sets up all the wheels and patch cords to the same settings in which the message was encoded, and then starts to input the coded message into the Enigma machine. The 193rd letter of the encoded message is an "H", so he presses the "H" key. And the encryption path for the 193rd letter is the same as it was when the message was encoded, and connects the "H" circuit with the "A" circuit, and thereby lights the "A" lamp, decoding the 193rd letter.

It's simply brilliant and brilliantly simple. And all done with 20th Century high-school physics technology.

July 19, 2018
Stop Complaining and Do Something!

I am not much of a political activist. I vote in every election, but I've never went to a political rally or protest or march. I've never sported a candidate's button or bumper sticker since I briefly donned an "I Like Ike" button when I was 7. (Mostly because the name rhymed with mine.) But I've been feeling so helpless and angry this past year and a half, as I watched this disgrace to the Office of the Presidency make America ugly again. And then I realized I have a chance to do something about it.

I live in New Jersey's 11th Congressional District, whose incumbent Congressman is Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen, who will not be running for re-election this year. While Frelinghuysen has been in office for decades in a majority Republican district, sentiment has been changing over the years, and the district went for Clinton in 2016. I suspect this change in sentiment has a lot to do with Frelinghuysen's decision to step down. There's a real chance that we might be able flip the seat to the Democrats this year. And I might be able to help.

So last Wednesday, I went down to the Democratic Party Headquarters in Morristown, and signed up to canvas my neighborhood to get out the vote for Mikie Sherrill, who is running for Congress on the Democratic ticket. I've never done anything like this before. But they gave me a number of specific houses to call on in my neighborhood with some specific questions to ask and specific things to say to them. And the following day, I spent 3-1/2 hours walking around my neighborhood, talking to folks I had known only casually, and getting them on board to vote for Sherrill come November..

To all my Blog readers in the NJ 11th District, and everywhere else, I say, "Stop complaining and start doing something about it!" You can play a part in reversing the direction we've been going.

June 10, 2018
Mortality Awareness

The weather today was predicted for cloudy and cool, so it seemed like a good opportunity to take care of my annual house maintenance on the roof. Boring stuff: clean the chimney, clear out the gutters, sweep a year of tree debris off the edge...that sort of stuff. So I got out the ladder and climbed onto the roof, and noticed a new situation that needed attention. A tree adjacent to the house had a few minor branches sprouting from midway up the trunk. And those branches had now grown to the point where they were overhanging the roof itself, and crowding around the flue pipe from my boiler. That needed to be remedied.

But what to do about it? I could surely trim the branches from where I could reach them from the roof. But they would quickly grow again to the point where they were a fire hazard from the flue pipe. The proper remedy would be to remove the branches from where they sprang from the trunk. The photo shows the situation (after the branches had been removed). The tree originally had a double trunk, but the nearer branch of that trunk had grown to overhang the house dangerously, and had been removed some years ago, leaving a horizontal stump just about level with the edge of the roof. The new branches that were crowding the flue pipe sprang from the further trunk. There was no safe place on the ground to put a ladder leaning against the tree. But if I could stand on the stump of the nearer trunk, I could easily get to the base of those branches with a chain saw. The stump is about 4 feet from the edge of the roof. And 20 feet off the ground.

Had this happened 5 or 10 years ago, I would have unhesitatingly leapt the distance. I know damn well I can make a running broad jump of 4 feet without even breathing hard. And with the far trunk available to grab and stabilize my landing it would have been a sure thing. But after that incident in 2015 when I fell from my deck and broke my clavicle, I've become aware of my own mortality. I couldn't bring myself to make that leap. I went down to the garage and got a sturdy plank and laid it between the roof and the stump. And you know what? I couldn't even bring myself to walk that one step on the plank to reach the stump. I got down and sat on the plank and inched myself along to the stump, where I was able to reach the base of the offending branches with the chain saw. With age comes wisdom. Or cowardice. Or something.

Consider this thought experiment:  Cut a circle about 14 inches in diameter out of plywood to represent the stump, and place it on the ground with the edge of the plywood touching a tree.  Then draw a line on the ground four feet from the plywood circle to represent the edge of the roof.  Then starting on the far side of the line, jump onto the plywood circle.  You almost wouldn’t even have to jump.  You could just take a long step.  What are your chances of failure?  Vanishingly small.  True, the consequences of failure are equally miniscule, as opposed to the consequences of failure from the roof.  But that shouldn’t bother you if you are so certain to succeed, should it? 

It shouldn’t. 

It didn’t use to. 

It does now. 

I’m getting old.

April 16, 2018
Morning Edition

I made the news this morning!

After a weekend of unsettled spring weather, where the temperatures ranged from 40° to 80°,I awoke this Monday morning to a torrential rain and 38°. As is typical, I wakened while it was still dark, long before I was ready to get out of bed, and turned on WNYC radio, the New York NPR station to doze while listening to Morning Edition, their morning news program. I was thinking that one redeeming factor about the ugly weather was that I didn't have to run.

I have a regimen of running every other morning. Not very far. I do a loop around the neighborhood of about a mile. And I hate every minute of it. (And as time goes on there are more and more minutes to hate.) I take no joy in this exercise. I get no "runner's high". It is strictly a therapeutic activity designed to remind my heart and lungs what they're supposed to do for a living in my otherwise relatively sedentary lifestyle. But I give myself permission to skip this onerous task if it's raining, snowing, or under 15°. So I do rejoice when I can give myself a weather-related vacation.

So, as I lay in bed contemplating happily upon my respite, the local weather came on the news. They too noted the unsettled weather, and asked listeners to call in and leave a voicemail on how they were coping with it. Without hesitation, I reached for the phone, dialed the number they gave, and at the beep, said, "I love this rainy weather! I run in the morning except in inclement weather. And this morning I don't have to.! Yaaaaaaay!!

Morning Edition repeats its news cycle on a two hour interval. And later on, after eventually getting up, showering, and preparing breakfast, the weather report came up again. And they played my comment.


February 24, 2018
Arming Our Teachers

"President" Trump suggests we require a small percentage of teachers to carry firearms on the premise that it would dissuade potential school shooters from carrying out their attacks, knowing they would face armed opposition.

That would only hold true if school shooters were rational. Which, by definition, they aren't!

All that would accomplish would be to make all teachers, armed or not, the primary targets.

February 20, 2018
Justice Served Against Corporate Malfeasance!

Many years ago (I'm not sure exactly when) I was done a great wrong by AT&T. (I don't quite remember the precise details of that injury.) I felt battered and violated, but I didn't know what recourse I could take to correct this mockery of justice. However, I and thousands of my fellow victims resolved to band together to set matters straight. We hired attorneys and experts to launch a class action suit against the dastardly perpetrators of this heinous crime. We doggedly pursued this case through countless roadblocks and legal maneuverings by the corporate villains. We met their delaying motions with counter-motions of our own, overcoming all legalistic impediments to our cause, launching appeals higher and ever higher within the court system. And in the end, we triumphed! We won our case.

But collecting our settlement was another matter. Again platoons, nay regiments of lawyers battled in our behalf for years and years. And when the dust had cleared, we again triumphed. And yesterday, a check arrived in the mail representing my share of the settlement. I am so happy and proud, I decided that rather than cash the check, I'd frame it and hang it on the wall as a symbol of my part in the little guy's battle, and eventual triumph over corporate greed.


January 12, 2018
False Alarm

Names and phone numbers redacted for privacy


Those of you who are regular patrons of this Blog might recall the piece I wrote in 2016 about my Uncle Albie in which I fondly recalled the then 96-year-old athletic uncle who was very much a part of my childhood. Well you can imagine my sadness at receiving the above notice in the mail today. What made it worse is that the letter had been mis-delivered to the wrong address, and then forwarded to my correct address, where I received it only two days before the memorial.

I called my brother Saul to inform him of the sad news, and then called my cousin Lois in Michigan, Albie's daughter, to offer my condolences. She reacted with shock, not having heard anything about it. I explained to her about the notice. And she burst out in laughter. "It's not a memorial. It's a 98th birthday party!" she exclaimed.

Sure fooled me. Look at that notice with its black border, and tell me that I didn't make a very reasonable, although happily incorrect assumption. I called Saul and told him about the error, and we both had a good laugh.

I'm going to the party.


POST SCRIPT: January 15

Uncle Albie, his wife Nydia, and Nydia's daughter Daisy in background.
(And me in the mirror behind them, taking the picture.)

So I went to the party. It was great to see Uncle Albie after something like 17 or 18 years, and my cousin Phillip after more than 50 years. But truth be told, other than that it was not much fun. The affair had been put together by a professional party planner, complete with a deejay, who filled the hall with music so loud it was almost impossible to hear Albie, whose voice is quite soft. Or to hear anyone else for that matter, even when they were shouting to be heard over the music. The deejay also served as master of ceremonies to the proceedings with all the warmth and sincerity of a game show host. The food was good, though. So I stuck it out for a couple of hours, until I felt a headache coming on, and then took my leave.

The word had already spread through the crowd of 50 or so guests about how I had misinterpreted the party invitation as a memorial gathering before I arrived. And everyone had a good laugh about that. Nydia is Latina, and the attendees were an equal mix of Hispanic and Brooklyn Jews, and all very comfortable with each other. My circle of friends and acquaintances is primarily pretty white-bread, and it was gratifying to see the harmony that reigned in that gathering. The deejay had appropriate selections for both branches of the family.

Albie is in good spirits, but he is somewhat frail, and uses a cane to get around. He's still very much into the sport of running (He ran his last marathon in 2000 when he was 80.), although nowadays his participation is more in following the activities of his running club then in the actual participation in the sport. His 2nd wife, Nydia is 12 years his junior, and doing just fine. Albie was sort of wishing that they would have held off and thrown the party on his 100th.

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