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Not Funny: That Joke Could Be a Spy's Message

Steganography is the art of sending a hidden message in plain sight. There are many ways to do it. An agreed on sequence of hand motions to indicate yes or no, for instance, could be used by two prisoners to communicate while the unwitting guard is looking right at them. Some party games use this idea to fool participants who don't know the "code" until they catch on.

Computers have enlarged the possibilities for steganography. Software programs are now well known that can embed secret messages in extraneous 1's and 0's of an image file or music file. The extra code does not affect the picture or sound. People might distribute JPG or MP3 files around the world, oblivious to a possible payload coded within. Only those with the decoder program can find the message and read it.

According to an article on PhysOrg, "Steganography is No Laughing Matter," a new way has been devised to send secret messages in plain sight, using jokes. The problem with image and sound files is their size; the problem with plain text files, though, is making them look suspicious with altered grammar. Now, Abdelrahman Desoky of the University of Maryland has devised a way to hide messages in common riddles.

Desoky suggests that instead of using a humdrum text document and modifying it in a codified way to embed a secret message, correspondents could use a joke to hide their true meaning. As such, he has developed an Automatic Joke Generation Based Steganography Methodology (Jokestega) that takes advantage of recent software that can automatically write pun-type jokes using large dictionary databases.
Maybe you never dreamed that a joke could have an ulterior motive, but this story shows that intelligent design can go more than one level deep. There's the plain message available to all, and the hidden message available to those who expect one and know how to decipher it.

Understanding a message on a communications channel, whether it be a joke or string of bits, requires a convention (Latin conventio, a coming together). Both ends must agree on what the signals mean. The sender and receiver do not have to be human; they could be software programs or biological codes.

Dr. A. E. Wilder-Smith, an early promoter of some aspects of intelligent design theory, used to emphasize this point. The codon GCC, for example, does not signify the amino acid alanine directly. GCC doesn't look like alanine, smell like alanine, or feel like alanine. GCC would be meaningless except for a language convention, known by both the DNA and the ribosome, that have experienced a "coming together" that agrees on this representation. The translation is mediated by a specific aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase enzyme that fastens alanine onto the transfer RNA bearing the specific anticodon for GCC.

The presence of language conventions is evidence of intelligent design, whether it be in steganographic jokes, ASCII representations, or the genetic code. Bits are meaningless in themselves. It's the way they are organized and interpreted that makes the message. Organization for function -- interpretation of signals -- in our uniform experience, the only adequate cause for such phenomena is intelligence.