(For a short quickref bio, check here.)
Hi, I'm Elonka Dunin. I was born in Santa Monica, California on December 29, 1958, to Stanley Edward Dunin, who had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s, and Elsie Ivancich, who had been born in Chicago to Croatian/Hungarian parents. Both of my parents were graduate students and part-time teachers at UCLA -- my father teaching mathematics and engineering, and my mother teaching dance and ethnology.
I got involved in computers early. My father was a sought-after computer programmer, working first for NASA in the launch of the world's first geostationary communications satellite, Syncom 3, then for a stock brokerage that created the first ever computerized stock database, and then in the title insurance industry, making databases of title documents. He would take me to work with him on the weekends, and I'd get to literally play with the huge mainframe computers like the IBM 360 Mark 30. He'd program them to play simple number games with me, and as I grew, I'd do some of my own programming. My first full language was Fortran, and I got involved with pretty much any school club or extra credit class that expanded computer knowledge (there weren't many in those days). For example, in Junior High School, we didn't have a computer, but they'd give us keypunch cards where we'd shade in the dots with #2 pencils, showing where the cards were supposed to be punched. These cards would then be picked up and shipped downtown to where they'd actually be processed, our programs would be run, and we'd get the printouts back a few days later and proceed with debugging. Talk about lag! We also had a little Monroe machine in class, but it was tough to get time on it -- sometimes I'd have to literally physically fight for a spot to play with it, and I'd have other boys in the class leaning over my shoulder, wanting to push me out of the way so that they could get time. This kind of system progressed through high school, where we had a teletype machine that communicated with a main server, and our programs were all in hardcopy. Still clunky (and loud), but better than having to ship things away for days at a time to downtown!
I graduated from University High School in 1976, and then went on to study Astronomy at UCLA, but then dropped out to join the USAF.
United States Air ForceI served the usual Basic Training at Lackland AFB in Texas, then technical training at Chanute AFB in Illinois, before being shipped to England for my first PCS (Permanent Change of Station) to RAF Mildenhall, near Cambridge. I was a 325x1, an Avionics Instruments Systems Specialist, working mostly on different variations of C-135 aircraft (similar to Boeing 707). EC-135s were flying command posts, KC-135s were tankers, and RC-135s were the "big ears" planes that looked like chipmunks because of all the electronics bulging out of them.
In 1981, I "rotated" back to the United States, to Beale Air Force Base in California. More C-135 aircraft there, plus some T-38s, and some Lockheed spy planes, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the U-2/TR-1.
I got by okay with electronics, but it wasn't really something that I was stellar at. I tried cross-training into other career fields that made better use of my computer skills, but I kept getting rejected, since "Instruments" was a "shortage career field", meaning they didn't have enough people to fill it, and you couldn't cross-train out of it unless you were going into something that had even more of a shortage.
While I was in England, I'd been playing around a bit with the new TRS-80 computers, which one of my co-workers had bought via mail-order. It was the kind with the cassette tape memory, and a big whopping 4K of RAM, whee. :) I enjoyed making simple programs on it though, and would sometimes help other people debug their systems, like I think one guy had an Atari on base. Then in California, my father gave me an Osborne, the first "portable" computer (it was about the size of a sewing machine, so we joked that it was "transportable", but not necessarily "portable"). My hand still hurts from the weight of dragging it through airports as I got sent to TDYs (Temporary Duty Stations), but it was worth it to have it in the barracks when I was off-duty -- I was steadily working my way through every single one of the new "Infocom" games that was available for the Osborne's CP/M operating system. Some of them I recognized from my earlier days gameplaying on mainframes at my father's offices -- for example, Zork 1-3 I'd already played in an older (and harder) version known as "Dungeon".
My cross-training applications kept getting rejected, so in 1983 I "got out" of the USAF (their loss), and went back to school full-time, studying digital electronics at nearby Yuba College.
1984 Los Angeles Olympics
In 1984 I moved back home to Los Angeles, and worked for the 1984 Olympics (the UCLA Olympic Village was just a few blocks from my childhood home). I did word-processing and typesetting for the French-English newsletter, using an IBM system that had 8" floppy diskettes (I can still tell horror stories about how I had to educate everyone else about how to handle a floppy: "Don't staple it, don't paperclip it, don't rub off smudges with your finger...")
Gaming and BBSes
After the Olympics, I moved to Denver, Colorado, to work at my father's company, Title Data, for awhile. I was mostly translating code from SPL on an HP3000, to "C" on a Fortune Unix-based system. I was still a hardcore gamer -- I worked through every game available on that HP, wrote simple games on my Osborne, and when I got a Macintosh Classic, started playing every game available for the Mac, too. It was also around this time (mid-1980s) that I started creeping into the growing BBS culture, logging on from Denver and Los Angeles.
My parents had been travellers too, and had lugged me to Europe a few times. I'd traveled through Yugoslavia, France, and the UK, and got plopped in a Swiss boarding school ("Chateau Mont-Choisi") for the summer of 1969. I'd also made a point of visiting other countries through my adulthood -- a month in Poland to visit family, plus trips to other spots from Tahiti to Egypt to New Zealand. While I was in Colorado, this trend continued, as an old high school friend, Connie Seidman, who had become a travel agent, would invite me along on trips every so often, like to Burma and Thailand. On one of those trips, I met some travelers from Australia and New Zealand, and I was impressed how one husband & wife couple had sold their house, to get enough money to travel around the world for a year. So the next time Connie called me up and said, "Hey, want to go to Hong Kong for New Year's?" my reply was, "Sure, and can you make my ticket one-way?"
I spent the next three and a half years traveling all the way around the world -- I traveled across Asia, spent a few weeks writing in Kathmandu, went on safari in Kenya, and even returned to England to see my old stomping grounds at RAF Mildenhall. But eventually money started to run low, so I returned to the US to work as a temp secretary to earn some more money. Then I went down to Chile to visit my mother "for Christmas" while she was doing research, and I ended up spending about a year and a half in South America, visiting every country but Surinam, and working for awhile as an English teacher in Rio de Janeiro. I eventually worked my way back up north through Ecuador and Colombia and Guatemala, and back to Los Angeles.
Legal secretary (and gamer)
In Los Angeles, I resumed work as a temp secretary, bouncing around different legal firms, logging onto BBSes, and playing every computer game I could get my hands on -- my journals from the era are filled with notes critiquing every game, comparing difficulty of various puzzles, trying out different solution techniques, and recording my successes for beating each game in turn (I nearly always played every game all the way through to the end). But eventually I'd gotten through all the easily available ones, so what else to do? I started poking around on CompuServe to see what other games they had available -- the closest that I could find to what I wanted was British Legends, but I didn't much care for it, especially the PvP (player vs. player) culture. So I moved on to another online service, GEnie. I went to their games page, picked "GemStone II", chose a "cleric" profession, logged in to the starting area, and was hooked. I tore through that game, learning it so fast that the other players were convinced that I must be a "reroll" -- an older player who was pretending to be a new one (I'd had the same problem in British Legends). But no, I just loved the game. I worked my way up through the player hierarchy, and then when the new version of the game, GemStone III, was launched on December 1, 1989, I was one of the first beta-testers.
In mid-1990, a convention was held in St. Louis for the players to meet some of the staff behind the game, and a month later, I moved to St. Louis and started helping out with Simutronics. Within a year, I was running GemStone III and one of the other Simutronics games Orb Wars, and doing a lot of other administrative work in Simutronics, which took a lot of the load off of David Whatley's shoulders (he'd been running the game out of his bedroom in his parents' home), and gave him time to write a new game, CyberStrike. He wrote his own 3D graphics engine to do it, and the game was so far ahead of its time that Computer Gaming World magazine created a new category just so they could present it to us: "ONLINE game of the year" -- we were the first, in 1993.
More attention to our company followed -- we got contracts, moved into a real office, hired more people, and things just kept growing! We opened portals to our games on America Online, Prodigy, and CompuServe, and in 1997 launched our own website, play.net. Along the way, I held a variety of positions, though the title really didn't matter much except in terms of what needed to go on a business card -- in reality, we all just did what needed to be done. But "officially", I was a product manager, technical writer (I wrote most of the manual for our game CyberStrike), Executive Producer of the "Hercules & Xena" game, and participated in the development of everything else too, from "Modus Operandi" to "DragonRealms", to our newest game in the pipeline, "Hero's Journey."
In 1999, we made the "Inc. 500" list as one of the fastest-growing companies in the country.
Also in 1999, I took a much-needed vacation, and chose to visit the only continent that I hadn't been to yet -- Antarctica! I was a member of the Planetary Society, and in one of the monthly magazines was an open invitation from Dr. Louis Friedman, asking the 100,000 members if any of us wanted to join him on an expedition. About 50 of us said yes (and I talked Connie into coming too), and we converged on Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, in Tierra del Fuego, to board the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, an icebreaker (that we think used to be a Soviet spy ship). We traveled south across the Drake Passage, and made several landings around the Antarctic peninsula. When I got back home and had the pictures developed, I created a website about the journey: 1999 Planetary Society Expedition to Antarctica.
Another growing hobby around this time, that was cutting into my travels, was cryptography. I'd been invited to speak at various fan conventions such as Dragon*Con in Atlanta in 1998, and in mid-2000, while I was speaking at Dragon*Con, I got to hanging out with the folks from se2600, the local hacker group for the southeastern United States. I'd had peripheral associations with various hackers since junior high school (the other guys that I was fighting for computer time with), plus my BBS associations, but had never really gotten deep into the public part of the culture. At Dragon*Con though, we hit it off, and through them I heard about this code that had been released in 1999 at the PhreakNIC v3.0 convention in Nashville, but no one had solved it yet.
Well, the gamer in me got hooked. I got started on that code one weekend while I was home with the flu, and I just couldn't put the thing down. I was obsessed with it until 10 days later (felt like a lot longer, actually), I had the thing cracked. I won the prize, a free trip to the next PhreakNIC convention, including hotel, t-shirts, etc., and a fair amount of glory. I also wrote a tutorial about the Code, which I placed onto one of my websites. It was written in a very "cyberpunk" style, with lots of humor, and in-jokes about cryptography, hacker culture, sci-fi, movies, and some other stuff mixed in.
So hacker cons got added to my growing speaking schedule, and I gave (at that time) small talks at Def Con, PhreakNIC, and was invited to sit on "Hacking" panels at Dragon*Con.
War on terrorism
And then September 11th happened. :/ Which put everything else on hold, as David and I built a crisis center at Simutronics to help track the status of all of our customers that were in the affected areas. That was an emotional time, watching the reports come streaming in, worrying about our EMT customers, and dealing with the occasional case of fraud as someone might try to use 9/11 as an opportunity to declare themselves dead, and reap the benefits. I tracked down a couple of those (see the newspaper articles for more). I also organized a trip to New York in October 2001 to meet with and hug some of my East Coast customers, and a visit to Washington DC to hug my cousin Nick who had a very close call at the Pentagon that morning of 9/11.
Then while visiting my DC cousin, after we visited the makeshift memorial at the Pentagon, he asked, "Well, as long as you're here in DC, are there any other tourist attractions that you'd like to see?" I thought about it for a moment, and then replied, "Sure, how about Kryptos?" I'd heard of the encrypted sculpture while working on the PhreakNIC v3.0 Code, but hadn't done much more than read a few articles about it. My cousin asked me where it was, and after a bit of fumbling (there's not exactly a street address for CIA), we tracked down its general location and drove by, only to learn rather abruptly that attempting a casual drive past CIA tends to rapidly get the attention of large men with guns. ;) They asked our business, we said visiting Kryptos, and they said no, access was for those with Official Business only. We tried a couple different ways to talk our way in, but the guards were polite but firm (and as I mentioned, they were large guys with large guns), so we reluctantly turned away. But the "official business" puzzle kept turning over in my mind . . .
As a parallel track with this, I'd been wondering if I could use any of cryptographic research skillz to help with the war on terrorism, similar to how civilians had been allowed to help with Enigma ciphers at Bletchley Park in the UK during World War II. So I called up my local FBI, got politely rejected a few times, but persisted, and eventually got an agent who asked, "What is it you know about?" I listed off the types of cryptography that I knew about, and one of the terms I mentioned was "steganography", which got his attention. He explained that they'd been hearing rumors about Al Qaeda using steganography, and though there were probably big brains in DC who knew all about the technique, that in the St. Louis field offices, they weren't that familiar with it. I was asked if I could put together a talk about the subject, for an upcoming task force meeting.
I'd never given a talk on that particular subject before, but accepted, and then researched the heck out of things, and talked to other experts in the field. And I put together one heck of a talk. 70 PowerPoint slides, going over steganography, media speculation, fact and fiction, noted researchers in the field, detailed examples of how it worked, etc. My own conclusion was that I didn't believe that Al Qaeda had used stego, but they had used *other* methods of communication, and I went over those as well.
The talk was a hit, and I gave it in other locations on my convention circuit, and I found myself getting invited to other interesting places, such as major universities here and there.
Something else I'd kept in mind while putting the talk together, was that unsolved "Official Business" puzzle from a few months earlier. So in one of my steganographic examples, I used a photo of Kryptos which I'd gotten from the CIA website. And every time I gave the talk, I'd casually mention how much I'd love to give the talk at CIA someday.
Well, when I gave the talk at Def Con, at the end of my talk, I got "The Approach". Someone came up to the podium, unobtrusively explained that they worked "at Langley", and they thought that they could get me in. I got a phone number and a first name, and after I doublechecked it to make sure it was "real" (I made them send me an email from an official CIA email address), we worked out the details, and I got onsite to CIA to give my talk in October 2002, 'cause *I* had "official business", heh.
I did my best to maximize the research potential of my trip -- they wouldn't let me take pictures, but I asked for and received permission to do some rubbings of the sculpture. My cousin's wife (an artist) loaned me some charcoal, and I made several rubbings (which made quite a mess in my suitcase on the flight home!). I then figured the responsible thing to do was to not keep them to myself, but instead share them with whoever else might be actually working on the puzzle. So, I scanned them in (making a mess of my scanner, too), and made a webpage for them. I called it "Elonka's journal" (though I hadn't really kept any kind of digital journal before that), and rambled a bit about my visit. I also scoured the web for other Kryptos-related information (there wasn't much), and linked that information from my page.
Little did I know that that one page was going to change my life.
I gradually started getting odd correspondence from around the world. Usually it was from people who claimed that they'd solved the final part, but when I tried to follow up, I'd usually just find schizophrenic delusions. Like claims that Kryptos proved the existence of aliens, or a secret conspiracy on Easter Island, stuff like that. So I'd file those away, and move on. But every so often I'd get a "real" question, like, "Who made Kryptos? What else has that artist done?" and, helpful person that I am, I'd try to dig up the answers and add them to my website. This project, and my website, grew and grew, until one day I noticed that my website actually had higher placement on Google for Kryptos, than even the CIA's own website! I was corresponding with art galleries all over the country, and they were sending me copies of their Sanborn files so that I could grow the "Works of Jim Sanborn" portion of my website. This eventually led to contact with Sanborn himself, who graciously loaned me photos from his own files, so that I could keep my website updated -- I had the best Sanborn "fansite" around!
In early 2003, I was contacted by Gary Warzin, one of the bonafide Kryptos researchers, and during correspondence with him, I came up with my own method of solving part 3 of the sculpture. I wasn't the first to come up with the solution, but I did come up with a "pencil and paper" way of doing it which I had not yet seen (yes, this got added to the website too).
Gary also asked whether I thought it would be worth creating a discussion group to discuss his Kryptos research. I heartily agreed. Gary created it, and then I went about inviting some of the people who I knew were researchers. I brought in Chris Hanson, and Jim Gillogly, and sent out invitations to other cryptographers as well (not all accepted though). And we happily went along discussing Kryptos, while the group inexplicably kept growing and growing.
In 2003, one of my hacker associates, Randall Bollig, sent me some pictures of the Cyrillic Projector, so the group started working on that, compiling a transcript of the sculpture (a tedious process which took weeks of painstaking effort, working from snapshots of many parts of a cylindrical sculpture with backwards Russian text on it). But we succeeded, and, yes, that too went up on the website, where it ended up being used by a non-group-member, Frank Corr of North Carolina, who cracked the cryptographic portion of it, and then we took the ball and ran with it and got the rest of it deciphered and translated. Our group charter stated that no one from the group should take sole credit for any solution, so for a detailed list of who did what, check here.
When the press release went out in September 2003, that brought in some international media attention, which grew the group some more. Also in 2003, we started to get a few people wandering in who were mentioning a book we'd never heard of, "The Da Vinci Code", by Dan Brown, that seemed to have some sort of link to Kryptos. That book started to sell *really* well, and that brought even more visitors to my website, and to our discussion group. Between the Cyrillic Projector and Dan Brown and Google, my website(s) were now routinely pulling in many thousands of visitors per month, sometimes tens of thousands in a single day. Most of this was related to Kryptos, but in late 2003 I also created another "one page" section of my website entitled "Elonka's List of Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers", and it's starting to become the biggest draw on my site. As of February 2006, my site had hundreds of thousands of visitors, and over 1.5 million page views. As of this writing in April 2011, I've had nearly 2 million visitors, and almost 4 million page views.
Dan Brown himself actually contacted me to ask me about Kryptos, since it was going to feature in another novel he was working on. It was released in late 2009, The Lost Symbol, and to my surprise, he'd actually named a character after me in the book! "Nola Kaye" is an anagrammed form of "Elonka"!
Along with all the crypto work, my game development job keeps chugging along as well. I continued to attend industry conferences, especially anything involved with the (initally small) branch of "online" games. In early 2001, I was one of the founding members of the "Online Games SIG", organized by Alex Jarett, previous chairman of the IGDA. We started working on annual White Papers on the state of our industry, and my participation in those gradually grew until one year I noticed they were listing me as "Senior Editor", and the Paper was respected enough that it was getting cited by other research papers, which feels good. In 2007, I was elected ChairPerson of the SIG, myself. As of 2011, I am still on the SIG, as "Chairperson Emerita" now, which sounds impressive but I feel like I'm still doing the same as I did before I was chairperson!
International pressIn mid-2004, after I'd given my Kryptos talk at Def Con, a big Las Vegas hacker con, I got a call from Kim Zetter, a reporter from Wired -- she did a lot of research and did a major piece on Kryptos in January 2005, which got the attention of some "mainstream" newspapers which followed up a few months later. There were segments on CNN and NPR, the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and when the UK paper "The Guardian" covered the story, it started getting picked up in other countries from South Africa to Taiwan. Perhaps because of this blitz, in mid-2005 I was contacted by a British book publisher, Pete Duncan from Constable & Robinson, who asked me if I was interested in putting together A puzzle book. My first reaction was, "No way, I'm already swamped," but he was patient and polite and persistent, and since the idea scared me so much, I figured it was probably time to go ahead and do it. ;) So, with help from many of my friends and associates we put together The Mammoth Book of Secret Code Puzzles, due for release in April 2006, just in time for the release of the movie The Da Vinci Code in May. It's funny how things all tie together! Then in 2008, I was asked to contribute two articles to Secrets of the Lost Symbol, a book by Dan Burstein and Arne de Keijzer which collected articles from many academics and other experts in their respective fields, to discuss the fact and fiction of Dan Brown's novel. So that's one more book that I get to lug around in my suitcase when I'm heading to booksignings!
GenealogyAlso in 2004-2005, I decided it was time to update the family tree. I started a new database from scratch, and entered in thousands of names. With the help of some other relatives, I've been compiling information on some of my more famous ancestors, of which I've found out that I have quite a few! The most excitement was around my great-great-granduncle Saint Raphael Kalinowski (the brother of my great-great-grandfather), who was evidently canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1991. So I started doing research on that, and, yes, added another section about Saint Kalinowski to my website. And then I created a Portugese version of the page, so that our branch of the family in Brazil can read it too. Other interesting relatives:
Well, I can't really "sum up" my biography, because I'm still pretty busy living it! My life these days is a mix of game development, public speaking, writing, and research. I've been especially pleased and honored to be able to speak at the NSA Cryptologic History Symposium every few years, and bring them up to date on Kryptos research. My book is still in print and in something like its sixth printing, I'm still doing lots of interesting stuff with the IGDA, playing lots of games, and updating my genealogical database when I can.
When I have free time these days, I'm usually volunteering at the Saint Louis Science Center, or writing articles on Wikipedia, where I was elected to an administrator position in December 2007. And at some point soon I want to go traveling again -- I still haven't transited the Panama Canal, or seen the Northern lights, or visited any of the islands in the Indian Ocean. Lots yet to do!
This page was last updated on April 24, 2011