You are an amateur radio operator, who unexpectedly intercepts a weak signal. The rather noisy broadcast sounds like a series of di-di-dahs. You quickly take notes to get the following message:


Inspection of your instruments, and your gut feeling suggest that the message you received might came from a quite distant source.

Where did the message come from?

The title of the puzzle was supposed to be a clue, pointing you towards the right direction. Now the information hidden there is incorporated into the main text. More clues tomorrow; until then, try out a few basic things. Remember, that this is a puzzle after all, hopefully with a nice solution.

  • $\begingroup$ I believe this sites doesn't like puzzle question like these. The problem is we don't know where to start and have to guess randomly. I believe there is a question on meta about questions like these. $\endgroup$ – Bradman175 Sep 9 '16 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ meta.puzzling.stackexchange.com/questions/1717/… Unless you edit the question, i think it's going to be closed. $\endgroup$ – Areeb Sep 9 '16 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Areeb I am familiar with that post, and this is not the first puzzle I made to this site. I am happy to provide clues in a couple of days. $\endgroup$ – Matsmath Sep 9 '16 at 1:55
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not going to vote to close this, because I believe it probably does have a unique answer which will be clearly correct once it's found. However, I do think the puzzle would benefit from some extra surrounding text and subtle clues, as recommended in the above-linked meta post. $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Sep 9 '16 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ Given the lateral-thinking I'm inclined to say 'afar' $\endgroup$ – Sconibulus Sep 9 '16 at 12:51

If we put those 231 characters on

a 21x11 grid

then we get (with some obvious replacements)

# # ## # # # # #### ## # # ################## ### # # # ### # # ###### # ## # ###### ### ####### ##### ##### ## # ### #### # # ### # # # ####### ######

which looks to me like

a sprite from an old low-resolution video game, representing a person. It might be a cowboy with a lasso (there's a hint of spurs on the feet and it would explain the slightly odd stuff at the top and right). I don't recognize it, though.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your attempt. While what you did certainly makes sense, I believe it is a bit far-fetched. For one reason, the with some obvious replacements part is not at all obvious to me. What have you replaced with what, and why did you do so? Secondly, remember, this -- however shortly stated -- is a puzzle after all, where every tiny bit of information one way or other, but counts. Those clues should be addressed in the answer. $\endgroup$ – Matsmath Sep 9 '16 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, the "obvious replacements" were just 0 -> space and 1 -> obvious non-space. I used, quite literally, every bit of the message (though admittedly not every detail of its "framing"). But if you (creator of the puzzle) say it's far-fetched, then clearly I'm on the wrong track altogether. $\endgroup$ – Gareth McCaughan Sep 9 '16 at 1:57

I'm going to go off on a tangent here and pretend your question was: "I have come up with this encryption which I think is cool and I wrapped it in the following story. Is it ready for puzzling.se? If not, what does it need?"

I believe the frame needs work in order to set expectations. I took a look at the puzzle and here's What I Have Tried.

On the one hand the radio operator and di di da suggests Morse code. On the other hand the emphasis on afar and weak signal suggests it didn't originate on Earth and hence isn't Morse or even an English message. If the receiver is a radio operator, wouldn't he recognize Morse? If the sender knew Morse, wouldn't he or she know to put in spaces?

Three branches occur to me at this point:

  1. It's an alien message and the most likely solution is to reformat it as a picture or pattern as that's how they would probably communicate to another culture.
  2. It's Morse without spaces suggesting an Earth-derived source at some distance that wants to obscure the message for some reason.
  3. It's some other encryption and the radio di da (wasn't there a Queen song about that?) is a red herring.

The obvious choices for 3 would be a hex or octal encoding of ASCII but there are several long runs of 0s and 1s which are outside the printable range so this is unlikely. Other encryption choices are certainly possible. On the other hand since the question is "where did they come from" it could be an encoding of celestial or galactic co-ordinates or positional information of some kind. Maybe afar isn't as far as space and it's latitude and longitude or GPS. How reliable is the narrator's gut? Several possibilities here but I'm inclined to put this aside.

There is a very small amount of information to make a picture (hats off to Gareth for a good try) so I would consider 1 unlikely as well.

How does 2 look? Well, I don't know if 0 is a dot or a dash. A quick look at the Morse table says that if this is straight-ahead Morse the first letter is E, F, I, or U if 0 is a dot or G, M, Q, or T if 0 is a dash. Each of these eight possibilities has about four possibilities for the second letter. Each of those has four possibilities for the next letter and so on. This quickly becomes unmanageable unless I can somehow prune the search tree.

I paused at this point to do a little meta-analysis. If I translated a normal message into Morse and took out the spaces, would that be cool enough? Probably not. Probably the poster at a minimum would begin the message with "QRT7 calling Earth...". The message might be in Caesar cipher. How do I know when to prune? If the signal is noisy, could some digits be wrong or missing? Also, I am by no means certain that Morse is really the first step. This could be a total waste of time.

This is why I think the puzzle is not yet ready. I am facing a lot of work chasing a lot of paths with no way of knowing whether or not I am on the right track. My reward is uncertain: why should I even be interested in this message? I cannot gauge my progress. The work to reward ratio doesn't appeal to me.

What would make it better? What if the receiver was a post-apocalyptic survivor who recognized the message as being from one of the spacecraft they used to send up in ages past? What message from a former civilization is it trying to send? This gives us motivation to solve it and you can set expectations for the solution. Maybe previous messages were words, pictures, formulas... whatever. Something to save me from expending arbitrary amounts of effort following random paths for an uncertain reward.

I hope this helps. I would really like to see you turn this into an enjoyable puzzle.

Good luck!

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you so much for taking the time to write up all of this. As you might have realized, as my puzzle stands at -6, it is not going to be bumped up on the main site after modifications. At this point it is too early for me to give away further clues, so I am not going to comment on the things you have try (for which I am very happy). As a meta-comment: it seems to me, that the problem this site is facing that if a problem is too easy, then it is boring/copycat. If it is not something you can solve in 18 minutes, then it is suddenly oh mommy help this is waaay tooo difficult for me... $\endgroup$ – Matsmath Sep 10 '16 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ ...also, I don't think that all puzzles must be solved in a day, or a week. I am happy to have this float around here for months. Then if/when someone solves it, that will be a great reward, as this puzzle withstood for a long time, and a lots of peoples efforts. There are not too much open problems on this site people can think of. $\endgroup$ – Matsmath Sep 10 '16 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ Some of the best puzzles on here took months to solve. But they had a clear path to follow, yours is like walking through a swamp, there's no way to know where to go. $\endgroup$ – dcfyj Sep 20 '16 at 20:01

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