MELISSA BLOCK, host:
As any student of politics knows, relationships between the legislative and executive branches can get testy. Here in California today, we read about a disagreement between the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. Earlier this month, Ammiano publicly called the governor a liar and he invited him to - using more colorful language than this - kiss his behind. Four days later, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that Ammiano authored and he sent the assemblyman a short note explaining why.
If you read from top to bottom down the left-hand margin, there seems to be another meaning hidden in the note. The first letter of each line spells out a common profanity that cannot be uttered on the radio. The first word of which starts with the letter F, the second word is U, you can figure out the rest. Coded message or coincidence? The governor's spokesman says coincidence, but not everyone is so sure. And to help us decide, we're turning now to Professor Robert Lewand of Goucher College in Baltimore. He specializes in cryptology.
Welcome to the program.
Professor ROBERT LEWAND (Mathematics and Computer Science, Goucher College): Thank you very much, Melissa.
BLOCK: And we asked you to calculate the odds of this happening accidentally. What did you find out?
Prof. LEWAND: Taking into account the frequencies of the letters that appear in this particular message, I compute that the odds of this happening by accident would be about 5.5 in one trillion.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: I see. So this line from the governor's office that this was pure coincidence, sounds like you're not buying it.
Prof. LEWAND: Well, I think somebody in the governor's office was just having a little fun. It would be very, very, very unlikely that that would happen by chance.
BLOCK: And just to get a sense of the words that we're spelling out, what seems to be this encoded message here, one of them is unnecessary.
Prof. LEWAND: Yeah, that occurs twice.
BLOCK: Kicks, kicks the can, the K in kicks.
Prof. LEWAND: That, I think, really gives it away because there are relatively few words in the English language that begin with the letter K. And that seems to me that they really had to search for that one.
BLOCK: Yeah. He didn't just say that the legislature just punked it, or the legislature just...
Prof. LEWAND: That's right or passed...
Prof. LEWAND: ...or - exactly.
BLOCK: Yeah, kicks the can.
Prof. LEWAND: And yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: So you think that's kind of the smoking gun in the letter.
Prof. LEWAND: I would guess so. You know, I'm not one to condemn people, but I would guess that they looked pretty hard for that word.
BLOCK: Well, Professor Lewand, thanks for decoding this for us and calculating the odds.
Prof. LEWAND: Okay, it was fun.
BLOCK: Robert Lewand, he does math and cryptology at Goucher College. We ran those on by Governor Schwarzenegger's office, which responded it was just a weird coincidence. Other veto messages spell things like soap and poet along the left margin.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.